Sunday 17th December 2017
Is. 61:1-4;8-11 1 Thes 5:16-24 Jn 1:6-8;19-28
In a few minutes time we’ll join together in affirming our Christian faith in the words of the creed; that ancient statement of beliefs, fundamental to our faith. And as a part of that statement, we’ll confirm that we believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. That’s what we say in some form or other every time we come to Church. But do we, I wonder, actually believe this? Do we really believe that Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in the next few days, who lived and died nearly 2000 years ago, is actually going to physically return to this world in spectacular form as judge of all? For week in and week out that’s exactly what we say we believe!
It’s certainly what the early Church believed. It’s undeniably true that this is exactly what the first century Church in Thessalonica believed. The members of that Church were utterly convinced that this was an absolute certainly and were, quite literally prepared to stake their lives on it! St Paul in his first letter to this Church, and most likely the first of his published epistles, written from Corinth in around 51AD, starts by welcoming the many gentiles who’d believed, in spite of considerable opposition and consequent suffering; who had turned from idolatry to worship the one true God, waiting for the return of his Son. And this recurring theme, repeated and developed in each successive chapter builds into the amazing climax in chapter 4 of the assurance that on his return, Jesus will be accompanied by all who’ve died who trusted in him, when they and we that remain will be reunited in his presence.
What an incredible promise this is! How vital that we, like the Christians in Thessalonica fully comprehend and accept this promise, which so overturns the World’s understanding of the finality of death! Just listen to those words. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him at his coming all who have died, who trusted in Jesus. …….Then we who are alive and remain, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord. So we will be with the Lord forever.” No wonder Satan tries to discredit this promise, with doubts of Christ’s resurrection, but St Paul wrote this less than 20 years after the crucifixion and there was no great outcry disputing his statement that Jesus had risen. No, for despite the best efforts of Christ’s enemies, the historical evidence that he rose is overwhelming, and we, like the Thessalonian Christians, need to have confidence both in the fact of his resurrection and of his glorious return.
So the question remains: do we really believe that Jesus is going to return? And if we do, then what difference, if any, would we expect this make to our lives? Could we keep living for ourselves, following our own ambitions and ignoring so often the needs of others, if we really believed his return as judge were imminent? And how similar these questions to those that faced the people of Judea 2000 years ago as John challenged their readiness to receive their messiah, when God was born in their midst in poverty and humility, so unlike their expectations. And note the humility and steadfastness of John as, to the consternation of his inquisitors, he drew attention to Christ and away from himself; yet that is the inevitable response for anyone truly recognising the presence of God in their midst. And how great the need for repentance, for turning around for both them and for ourselves if we are to begin to be ready to meet Christ on his return. Like John, we need such an awareness of the purity and holiness of God that we direct attention at all times away from ourselves and towards him.
So St Paul, in that brief passage we read this morning from the closing stages of his letter to the Thessalonians urges us to change our outlook and to be characterised by our conviction that he will return. So first of all, he tells us, that this certainty should enable us to rejoice in the knowledge, that however bad things may look, God remains supreme and has everything under control. This certainty similarly should empower us to pray continuously for the needs of others and for his coming kingdom as it is no longer self but God who inspires our prayers and desires. And then, Paul adds that in this spirit we should be content, uncomplaining and thanking God for all we have, regardless of our circumstances or situation, accepting that he knows best. In this way, St Paul himself is able to write in Philippians 4 v 11 “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
But beyond that, and in true humility as we prepare ourselves for his return, we need, St Paul continues, to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, perhaps taking us into situations and circumstances that may not be entirely to our taste. How important that is for us as a parish as we prepare to receive our new Priest. Are we ready to accept whatever changes he, under the direction of the Holy Spirit may initiate? We are not, says St Paul, to dampen the inspiration of the Holy Spirit nor despise those who preach God’s word, but, he warns we mustn’t be gullible, but use the Spirit’s discernment to confirm such teaching, keeping to what is good and avoiding evil. And in that last statement, I find the King James translation of “abstain from all appearance of evil” particularly helpful, for so often, whilst I may see no evil in a particular action, it is the perception of others that may need protection. So we, as Christians living in the expectation of his return, should, like John, direct attention away from ourselves and toward Christ, being more concerned for the feelings of others than for ourselves.
For if we truly believe that Christ could return at any moment to right the many wrongs in this World and to re-unite us with those who’ve gone before, then we will become more Christ-like, more selfless, more holy and ready to be presented blameless at his coming, for as St Paul asserts, it’s not in our own strength, but in his, who will achieve this even in someone like me, through his death on my behalf.
Duncan Burr, 17th December 2017 at Mojacar