Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Return for the Blog

It is a long time since I posted here so I have no idea if anyone will bother to read anything I post!  I have for the past few years been concentrating on my Church's Facebook Group, which is closed Group.  I have, however, recently been posting transcripts of the sermons I preach.

I think posting them here as well would be a good way to get the Blog up and running again.

At Christ Church Kowloon Tong, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  I don't preach every Sunday, but I will post the sermons of the Sunday I do preach.  I started editing my sermons to produce a transcript starting with Advent Sunday last year.  This was the first Sunday in Year A of the Lectionary.  It will take a little time to catch up as I don't want to post them all in one go.

Here then is the first sermon!

Advent Sunday Year A

Advent is easily my favourite time of the year.  Christmas is just around the corner.  The shops are already full of Christmas fayre.  The shopping malls are all decorated for Christmas.  And Christmas music greets you whether you are shopping in the supermarket or eating in a restaurant.

In Church, we have made the change to purple.  The Advent wreath is being lit, and the poinsettias have arrived!  The Christmas tree, however, is still some days off, but the children are getting ready for their Nativity Presentation and the choir are rehearsing for our Carol Service.

This, then, is Advent – a time of counting down to and preparing for Christmas.  Except it isn’t: at least not directly.  It comes as a bit of a shock to people to be reminded that Advent is only indirectly about Christmas.  Advent, traditionally, is a time for preparing not to celebrate Christ’s coming at Bethlehem, but his coming on the clouds as he returns to this earth not as the baby in the manger, but as the Son of Man in glory to judge the world. 

During Advent, the Church traditionally thinks about the four last things:  death, judgement, heaven and hell.  The Church tends to focus nowadays on Jesus’ teaching on love and forgiveness.  Our dominant image of him is of one who came to seek and to save the lost.  One who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  One who is inclusive and who reaches out to those at the margins of society.  During his life on earth, Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.  This was good news especially for those whose life was full of bad news:  the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the possessed. 

It is right that we too continue to preach this message of love and forgiveness.  But in Jesus’ own teaching, there were always two sides to the coin.  Jesus preached that in his ministry the kingdom of God had already come and was present in him.  He also, however, taught his followers to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven.  There was in other words a future dimension to this kingdom.  New Testament scholars talk about these two aspects of Jesus’ teaching as the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom.  The present and the future.  Understandably, we focus on the already.  What we experience in the here and now, and it is right that we describe the present benefits of following Christ, but we shouldn’t neglect the ‘not yet’, that is, what is still to come.  And Advent is a good time to correct the balance.

It is important that we do for Jesus himself spent a great deal of time talking about what the future coming of the kingdom would be like.  He does so in this morning’s Gospel, and he makes clear that it will be a time of judgement.  A time when one will be taken and another will be left.  When the sheep will be separated from the goats.  When evil and evildoers will be punished.  When wrongs shall be put right.  And when the righteous will be welcomed into the kingdom promised by the Father.

A great deal of Jesus’ teaching focuses on these issues.  Yes, Jesus does offer love and forgiveness, but he warns of judgement and punishment as well.  The Church used to try to hold these two sides of Jesus’ teaching together.  At times in its history, it must be admitted, it tended to stress judgement rather than love and forgiveness.  You may have seen some medieval art which depicts the souls of the damned being shovelled into the fires of hell.  It really is graphic stuff.  If you don’t believe me do an image search for: ‘doom paintings’

There is, however, no such danger today!

Many Churches have deliberately and consciously abandoned all belief in judgement, heaven and hell.  Death, obviously, is something they can’t deny!  Such ideas simply do not fit with their understanding of who God is and what he is like.  Other Churches have just quietly dropped all talk of such things refusing to even think about them.

The result is that we now have Christianity Lite, that is, Christianity without all the nasty bits. 

The trouble is that the message of love and forgiveness doesn’t seem quite so amazing now.  After all, if there is no judgement, no potential consequences for sin, evil, and wrongdoing, then why do we even need forgiveness?  Why should we care how we live?  If Mother Teresa and Hitler are both equally destined for heaven, then doesn’t that undermine the message of the Gospel, which assumes there is sin and evil?

The early Church believed passionately in the return of Christ and wanted to tell people the good news while there was still time.  St Paul clearly believed in the possibility of Christ’s return at any time and sought to win people for Christ ‘to save them’ from the coming judgement or, to use his words, ‘the wrath of God’.  He also urged believers, as he does in the reading this morning, to make sure they were ready for the return of Christ. 

Well, the years passed, and Christ did not return, and the Church placed less emphasis on the second coming of our Lord.  It didn’t abandon belief in it, though, as the Creed we will say together in a few minutes reminds us, and nor should we.  Nor did the Church abandon its conviction that we would all one day be called upon to give an account of our lives to God.

While it is true that we do not know when the final judgement will come - Jesus taught that even he didn’t know that, only the Father knew - it is also true that we don’t know when our own private judgement will come.  Jesus told the story of a rich man who was rather pleased with himself and all that he owned, but God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Luke 12:20)  The truth is that none of us know when our life will be demanded of us.  The need to be prepared, to be ready is as important today as it was when Jesus was on earth. 

Advent gives us a chance to take stock, to prepare; to get ready.  In doing so, we prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth in the best way possible.

‘Now is the moment to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.’

Have a good Advent.

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