Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Second Sunday before Advent

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Second Sunday before Advent.

The Second Sunday before Advent

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

We are fast approaching Advent! Indeed, as members of the Facebook Group will know, there was a time in the Church’s history when we would already be in it. This is reflected in our readings for today. Advent for most people has become a time of preparation for Christmas. (There are now just 39 days until Christmas!) There is nothing wrong with preparing for Christmas and the Nativity of Our Lord. But as with Lent as a time of preparation for Easter, we prepare not by anticipating the joy of celebrating the festival ahead, but by taking time for spiritual reflection.

We do this in Advent by focusing, not on our Lord’s first coming in weakness and humility as a baby in Bethlehem, but on when he will come again in power and glory as the Lord of all.

We have, in recent weeks, been considering St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. (I hope you will think about listening to the podcasts I have posted on the letter.) Today’s reading builds on what St Paul has said so far in the letter, especially in the passage immediately preceding the one for this week’s second reading.

In that passage, St Paul has answered a question that was clearly troubling the Thessalonian believers. They believed firmly in our Lord’s return, and they were looking forward to it. This was central to their faith and provided the basis for their hope. But what about those believers who died before our Lord returned? This question, as we saw last week, illustrates the huge difference between how the first believers approached their faith and how we approach ours today.

For most of us, our hope is in going to be with Christ when we die. For them, it was meeting with Christ when he returned. If your hope is centred on Christ coming again, then inevitably you are going to be worried about what happens if you die before he comes. This was a question that clearly was troubling some in the Church in Thessalonica. St Paul’s answer to this question isn’t to tell the Thessalonian believers not to worry because those who have died are safe with Christ in heaven. Instead, he tells them that, when the Lord returns, God will first raise from the dead those believers who have died so that they meet with Christ before he appears to anyone else.

For us, this immediately raises the question of what happens to those who die in the meantime before Christ comes again. St Paul’s answer to this question is that the dead are indeed already safe with Christ and, as we saw when we looked at St Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, St Paul is sure that, if he personally dies before the Lord returns, then that is where he is going to be. But that is not our hope. That is about where we go to wait for what actually is our hope. Our hope as believers looks to what will happen, not when we die, but when Christ comes again. And this is what Advent, traditionally, has been all about.

Advent, in the past, had as its theme the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. This at once creates huge problems for believers today. We only take seriously two of them: death and heaven. Far easier, then, in Advent to think about celebrating the birth of our Lord and the life he came to bring; life which begins now and which will last forever. Following on from this, we prefer to see death itself simply as a transition from life in this world to life in the next.

No matter how popular this approach may be, and you hear it expressed all the time at funerals, it isn’t the approach we find in the New Testament. As, again, we saw in our reading last week, death is neither the end nor the beginning for the believer. Death leads to a time of waiting for what we hope will be the beginning. The beginning is the time when our bodies will be raised and when we will share in the glory of God. As St John puts it:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

For this to happen, Christ must return, he must be ‘revealed’, as St John puts it, and judgement must take place. The mention of judgement makes us start to feel uncomfortable, and well it should. Judgement implies more than one possible outcome, which is where heaven and hell come in. The Bible teaches that the return of Christ will not be good news for everyone. As our Lord himself taught, not all will be saved; for ‘many are called, few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14).

If our Lord’s return is so important and crucial for all of us, believer and unbeliever alike, the obvious question is, ‘When will it happen?’ This, then, brings us specifically to the question that St Paul tries to answer in our reading. He writes:

‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:1)

I am not so sure he would say this to us! Even though the Thessalonian believers know the answer to the question of when our Lord will return, St Paul still feels it is important to remind them. The answer is, quite simply, we don’t know! The Lord will return, as he himself put it, ‘like a thief in the night’ (Matthew 24:43). It will be completely unexpected.

The first believers held together two beliefs about the timing of our Lord’s return. First, that it would be soon, and, secondly, that it would be unexpected. As we know, it turned out, from a human perspective, not to be soon, and, already in the New Testament itself, we see that people were beginning to worry that our Lord had not returned (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:1-13). Nevertheless, the Church, despite the apparent delay in our Lord’s return, didn’t give up in hoping for it, and the hope of it continued to play an important part in believers’ lives.

Regardless of when it would take place, St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that they must be ready for it. And being ready for it means making sure we are living the sort of lives that God wants us to live. St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that they are always to be prepared, so that the Day of the Lord will not come as a surprise to them. When it does come, it will be a time of judgement. They must be prepared as ‘children of the light’. Even if we die before Christ returns, the next thing to happen to us will be the judgement.

If, for example, we know that we have an exam coming up, we want to be ready for it or we know we will fail. The reason that the Church has a season of Advent is to give us a chance to make sure we are awake and are preparing ourselves for the examination we will all to have to go through. Many, St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, won’t be ready for it. And, like students who don’t prepare for an exam, they will have to face the consequences. They may think that everything is wonderful and that they can get on with enjoying themselves without having to worry, but St Paul warns:

‘When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!’ (1 Thessalonians 5:3)

St Paul is confident that that won’t happen to the Thessalonian believers. They may not know the precise time when the Lord will return, but they know for certain that he will, and so they should be in a state of constant readiness for it.

In the remainder of the letter, St Paul gives some guidance to the Thessalonian believers as to how they can make sure they are indeed ready. This includes respecting and honouring those who are their leaders and allowing the Holy Spirt to work among them. St Paul’s prayer is that they may be kept ‘sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

So, what does this have to say to us today? Just this:

We are not likely to prepare for something we don’t think is going to happen

The delay in our Lord’s return has meant that, historically, believers have not always lived as if it could happen at any time and, certainly, if it had have happened, the Church would not always have been ready. Despite this, believers in the past at least didn’t lose sight of the fact that it would happen, and their belief that it would happen is one that is reflected in the Creeds of the Church. In a moment, we will say:

‘He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.’

We will say it, but whether we believe it or not is another matter altogether. For while the Church in the past believed it, even if believers weren’t ready for it, we are neither ready for it or believe in it. At least, not in the way the Church has traditionally believed in it. Many believers, I think, believe theoretically that our Lord will return, even if they don’t expect it to happen any time soon, and certainly not in their own lifetime. But to judge the living and the dead? That is not how most people see it.

The Church in its history has been through many debates and arguments about what it does and does not believe doctrinally. And yet, despite the many divisions and disagreements over so many different issues, believers from different backgrounds and churches have managed to remain in agreement on certain fundamentals. Believers have manged, for example, to be able to say the Creeds together and, generally speaking, they have meant them, in theory at least. This began to change particularly in the last century when theologians started questioning such teaching as the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the empty tomb.

As people in the Church questioned these beliefs, the way was opened for a more fundamental redefinition of Christianity. Where this has now led is illustrated most clearly when it comes to the idea of judgement.

John Lennon wrote and sang a song that has become the anthem of many today:

‘Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today’

While, in the Church, we aren’t ready to give up imagining heaven, few, I think, now believe that God is going to punish anyone; fewer still that he will do so eternally. And if he isn’t going to punish anyone, then, as John Lennon suggests, we can forget about hell. The Pope himself has been reported as saying he doesn’t believe in hell. Others, in answer to the question about whether they believe in hell or not, would reply that they do, but that they don’t think there is anyone in it.

The question of whether hell exists and whether there is anyone in it may seem to be one that we can safely leave to God. It is not our concern. We should get on, it is said, with ‘living for today’, that is, following Jesus and telling people the good news about him. Except it is not quite that simple.

If there is no hell and God is not going to punish anyone, then our presentation of the good news of Jesus is inevitably going to change.

Many today base their presentation on the belief that as Jesus died for everyone, everyone and everything will one day be OK. If that’s how we think, our preaching will be about telling people something that is already true for them, even though they may not realize it yet. When we say we need to be ‘awake’, it is not because something terrible is going to happen to us if we are not, but rather that we need to wake up and see the wonderful reality of what God has done for us whether we know it yet or not.

Some would go further and base their message solely on their understanding of God as a ‘loving being’. On this understanding, Jesus’ death never was about saving us in the first place. It was about someone so committed to loving people that he was prepared to die for what he believed to demonstrate how much we are loved and to give us an example of how we too are to love.

Having, then, got rid of hell as a way of describing the judgement that those who do not believe in Christ and who fail to live lives pleasing to God will receive, we have also become less concerned about heaven. After all, if regardless of anything we do, we are going to heaven anyway, or it’s coming to us, or whatever it is that will happen in the future, we can stop worrying about the world to come and whether we will get there and concentrate instead on making this world in the present a better place for everyone.

And if believing in Jesus is about coming to a knowledge of what has already happened to everyone whether they are conscious of it or not, then how we explain who Jesus is to people changes. Rather than being the one who will judge them in the future, Jesus becomes the one who has already unconditionally accepted them in the present. Rather than being the one who can save them from their sin because they are horrible and need changing, he becomes the one who can help them to fulfil their potential because they are basically good and need loving.

What our message comes down to on this understanding, then, is this: Jesus was a prophet and teacher who welcomed and accepted people for who they were and, in his death, demonstrated the true meaning of love. By his life and example, he encourages us to be the person we want to be and to follow our dreams here and now in this life, while reassuring us that we will all live happily ever after in the next. Inasmuch as he makes any demands on us, it is for us to do what we can to make this world a nicer place; to work to remove the barriers that prevent people from realizing their identity; and to seek to create a fair and equitable society for all.

It is a message that tells us what we want to hear, that makes no difficult demands of us, and focuses firmly on our life in this world. Whether it is one that you would want to die for or even, on a Sunday morning, to get out of bed for is another matter altogether. And yet this, or a version of it, is what people are being offered in many churches.

So here’s the thing: Before you sign up to this gospel for our age, I would just ask you to pause and consider again the traditional message of Advent. To ask whether we are right to abandon what the Church historically has believed and taught about death, judgement, heaven, and hell.

In our reading this morning, St Paul writes:

‘For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)

Let me ask in closing: who is the ‘us’ that St Paul is talking about here. It is not everyone. As we have seen he has just told them that destruction will come upon those who are sure that they are living in ‘peace and security’. Some most certainly are going to experience God’s wrath.

No, the ‘us’ is those who have put their faith in Christ, who died for us. Those who, as St Paul describes them, in chapter one have turned from everything that is not God to the living God who reveals himself in his Son, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead and ‘who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

And that, I suggest, really is a message that it is worth thinking about this Advent.


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