Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Second Coming

Sermon on Luke 21: 20-36 (Daniel 7: 9-14), St Mathew’s, Oxford, 27 November 2011

This is a sermon about the second coming of Christ: what we should expect and how we should wait for it. As it is just the first Sunday in Advent I thought I could get away with not talking about Christmas.

Two verses stand out for me from the Gospel reading we heard just now. The first of these two verse (27) reads: ‘And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. ‘With power and glory’ is the theme for this service’ according to our service sheet and for once I will try and stick to this theme – or at least come back to it as much as possible. The other verse which stands out for me from our passage is the last verse (36),‘But watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man’.

Now sermons on the second coming – in my view - have a tendency to sound unbelievable. This is for a variety of reasons which I will go into later but a aim of my sermon is to make the second coming sound more believable – to convince you – if you need convincing that it’s true – and that Jesus will come again in power and glory.

Sermons on the second coming also have a tendency to be a bit depressing and guilt inducing, but my aim is to try and avoid leaving you depressed and anxious but hopeful. But I don’t think you can get away with some doom and gloom when talking about the second coming. The Bible is fairly clear – from Daniel to Revelation – with Jesus’ predictions in between – that the end times will be accompanied by considerable distress. Jesus says here (25), ‘And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.‘

But this doom and gloom is only half the story, the other half is that Jesus is coming again with power and glory to rescue us from the doom and gloom. Today’s gospel reading is essentially good news.

So two aims for this sermon: to leave you believing and hopeful.

Firstly let’s look at the believability of the second coming. As I said I think the second coming seems to be unbelievable for a variety of reasons. Two things are to blame here: modern science and our big egos. But another factor is that Jesus seems to taking a long time to return, so I’ll take each of these issues in turn.

So firstly I would suggest that the seeming un-believability of the second coming is a function of our modern scientific view of the world. Miracles don’t happen these days or do they? Christians may agree that they happened during Jesus’ lifetime – culminating in the miracle of the resurrection. But nowadays it seems a ‘big ask’, as they say, to imagine Jesus returning – particularly in the way the Bible suggests he will return even for Christians. Jesus says in today’s reading that he will return in a cloud with power and glory echoing what Daniel says in Chapter 7 verse 13. ‘I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man’.

I don’t quite know what to say about this. I am a scientist. I basically share the modern scientific view. On the other hand I have witnessed one or two miracles in my life. I think God healed me at one point from a rather nasty life-threatening disease. If I can believe in this miracle of healing – why does it seem unbelievable to me that Jesus should – at some point - return in a cloud with power and glory?

One thing here. Science has taught us much about the beginning of the universe and of the origin of our species. It seems fairly easy – at least to me – to reconcile what science says here with the Biblical account. But science also makes predictions about the future for our species and of our universe. It suggests that the our species will end in extinction – like all other species that have ever existed on this planet; that our planet will be burned to destruction as the sun comes to an end – as other stars, similar to our sun, have been observed to end - and there are various theories as to the end of the universe: one being that it will end in a big crunch to parallel the big bang. A more likely theory is that the universe will end in a sigh rather than a bang as everything just spreads out more and more thinly. But whatever - none of these scientific theories of the ultimate end of times seems to leave much space for Jesus retuning on a cloud with power and glory.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly I think the second coming is unbelievable to those of us who have been accustomed to believe that we human beings are in control of things. For at least 2000 years and increasingly so during the last 100, and particularly those of us who live in developed countries – we human beings have considered ourselves to be the masters of the planet. OK there has been the odd natural disaster, the odd disease, the odd economic crisis to cope with but generally we have felt ourselves to be in charge. Or at least we have felt that if we only just put our mind and ingenuity to it, that there is no problem too big for us to solve.

Modern science does seem to have solved some big problems. The big problem that is usually mentioned here is infectious disease – TB, small pox, cholera and the like – and the scientific solutions to these problems – in the form of preventive immunisation and drug therapies – have generally been almost universally thought to be good. I say ‘almost universally’ because of course modern medicine is partly responsible for there being too many people on this planet.

There are two other big problems that modern science has solved which in solving them have created problems of their own. These two problems were connected with energy and food. In the very old days there wasn’t much energy around: some renewables: sunlight, wind, water power; a bit of wood and of course human energy: so we couldn’t do much. However once we discovered that thing called oil we could do want we wanted. In Roman times it was only the Emperor who could travel to foreign countries for a holiday on a sunny beach, have a hot bath every day whatever the weather, eat ice-cream and imported fruit whenever he wanted. Now we all live like Roman Emperors and the reason for this is oil and other fossil fuels. We only began seriously to start exploiting oil around and coal around the mid 1800s.

The other problem that modern science solved in the early 1900s was how to make the land more productive. In particular two Germans Harber and Bosch discovered how to convert nitrogen in the air into nitrate and nitrites in the soil – artificial fertiliser in other words - and modern industrial agriculture was born. It is estimated that one third of the Earth’s population are alive – purely because of the Harber-Bosch process for making artificial fertilisers. Note that the making of these fertilisers would not be possible without oil – or a similar form of energy.

You can perhaps see where I am going. Modern science – for all the good things it has brought human beings – or some human beings at least – like longer lives and ice-cream has also created problems and now we are beginning to see the outworking of these problems in the shape of global warming – the result of using up the oil two quickly. But it’s not just global warming that is the problem but it’s also other related problems – such as running out of oil. It is not that science – in theory at least – couldn’t perhaps solve these problems but I think we can see that human ingenuity and science has a double edge to it. It solves problems but creates others and this is because – and we fool ourselves otherwise – we are not in control of creation or even just the planet on which we live.

And it’s not just the physical world that we cannot control as much as we think we can or like to. It’s even the economic world – the market. Witness the efforts of today’s politicians in much of the world to control the beast that we humans have created – the so called free-market. It’s very freedom means that human beings cannot stop things happening like collapsing banks and now collapsing economies.

The hubris of man and our belief that we are in control and not God is a theme which is threaded through the bible from Genesis to Revelation. The Tower of Babel is one of the first stories of human beings’ attempt to live without God but many of Jesus’ parables also speak to this idea. The parable of the rich fool who has a good harvest, pulls down his barns and builds larger ones, but that night dies – could be explicitly aimed at modern industrial farming. But today’s parable of the fig tree is at least partly about this idea too.

Since this parable of the fig tree is about the end times, one might have thought that Jesus would have set it at harvest time when leaves fall rather than burst. Harvest is a metaphor Jesus commonly uses for his parables about the end times so presumably his setting it in spring is deliberate. One thing he seems to be saying here is that we humans can do nothing about whether a tree comes into leaf or not but we know what it means – summer is coming. So too when we can see things happening around us – we can see what they mean if only we want to – but we often cannot actually do anything about them – just as we cannot control whether the fig tree comes into leaf.

So to summarise where I have got to: I am suggesting that big science with its distrust – if not outright antipathy to miracles - and big human egos have left no room for a second coming and yet Jesus says he will come again in power and glory.

But before I come to the hope that promise brings I want to touch on a third and final reason why I think the second coming might seem to be unbelievable and that is that Jesus clearly hasn’t returned during the last 2,000 years. That seems a long time, particularly when Jesus himself seemed to think, and the early Christians seemed to believe, that his return was imminent.

In our passage from Luke (32) Jesus says ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place’. Now the words ‘this generation’ are ambiguous here: Does Jesus mean ‘this generation to whom I (Jesus) are speaking’ or ‘this generation who are beginning to see the signs of the end times’? The first disciples clearly thought that he meant he meant their generation. We now have to interpret this saying as meaning the generation who begins to see signs of the end times or we have to think that Jesus was mistaken.

Now in the parallel passages to the Luke passage we heard this morning, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that we – his followers - would not know the precise hour of his return until it happened. But this not to say – as the Luke version stresses – that there won’t be signs of his imminent return as the parable of the fig tree suggests and in consequence we must – because Jesus commands us to - ‘Watch at all times’.

Now Christians, and indeed others, have – throughout the ages – tended to think that things going on around them are signalling the end times. Of course they were wrong in the past but one day they will be right. And of course they might be right in this day and age.

One reason why that I personally think they may be right in this day and age is global warming. It doesn’t seem to me credible that we as a species will survive what we are doing to the planet unless God steps in to help us. Of course I might be wrong: we human beings – using our ingenuity and science may be able to find a solution to this problem – but global warming is a problem – it seems to me of such a magnitude that will be incredibly difficult to solve by ourselves. We will need God’s help.

But so much for the believability of the second coming. I said that the second of aim of my sermon was to leave you hopeful. So two things to say here. Firstly that hope is not just a command it’s a gift and secondly something about why we are to have hope.

Firstly hope as a gift. I think we can be clear that hope is something we are commanded to have (like faith and love) but hope is also a gift from God (like faith and love). Hope is also something that has a future direction to it. We cannot hope for things that have happened or even only happening now. We hope for what is to come. And in the end we cannot know what is to come we can only hope for the best as they say.

But there is really no choice in the matter. God gives us hope for the future – and we are to have it. Hope like hubris is a theme of the bible from Genesis to Revelation. One of the first disasters in Genesis is the flood – after which God promises Noah, ‘Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth’ (Genesis 9: 11). This is the first of a series of promises from God that whatever happens not everything will be destroyed. It may look – at the moment that we are trashing the planet – but God is in control – he will not let it be completely destroyed.

So we are to have hope. But what does this mean? Are we to be passive or active in our hope? Those who think we should be active in our hope are concerned to do something about the signs of the end times that we can see. So for example those of us who see global warming as a threat to the existence of our species – or even the lives or our children – may seek to make every effort to cut down on the fossil fuels – the oil, coal and so forth, that we are using either directly or indirectly. This active hope underlies initiatives such as Low Carbon South Oxford. I do think as Christians we are called to be active in our hope but sometimes we unable to respond to this call or command. And this is where hope as a gift from God comes in.

So secondly why we are to have hope. In looking at the predictions of the end times we are often tempted to concentrate on the misery that is to come. But this is only half the story as I said at the beginning, Jesus says he is coming in power and glory. Yes the end times might be bad but we have his promise that he will come to sort things out. Our God is a god who rescues. And again this is theme threaded through the whole of the Bible.

God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. He rescues Daniel’s friends from the burning fiery furnace; there are countless stories in the Bible where God rescues. And of course he rescues us individually and corporately through the saving action of his son Jesus. So we can be confident that when it comes to the end times and he returns in power and glory he will save his world and all his people from destruction. We can be also confident because Jesus says so himself (28)) ‘Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’.

So finally when I said that the aim of this sermon was to leave you believing and hopeful, I wasn’t meaning to imply that I myself could give you belief and hope. It is only God who can and this is why I think Jesus finishes his predictions about the future with the command to watch and pray. Watching with waiting is a principal theme of Advent but it sounds like a rather passive activity and perhaps ultimately it is. Perhaps in the end it is, along with prayer, all we can do.

As I said have stressed throughout this sermon we are not in control of this world and what will happen to it. It is God with his power and glory who is. Ultimately we cannot give ourselves belief and hope. Only through prayer can God give us these things,

So on that note let us pray:

Jesus we are fearful of what may happen but you tell us that you will return with power and glory. Help us to believe in that and give us, we pray, hope for the future we cannot know but only wait for.

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