Monthly Archives: November 2019

What time is it?

You will realise there are a number of ways of answering: chronological time – is more or less exact (though you could refer to human history, geological or cosmological time scales). But you could talk about economic time. We live in a post-industrial society, where the heavy industry that brought wealth to some has moved away. We live in a time of some economic pressure, after the banking crisis (and arguably a crisis of confidence in other professions). For several years, real incomes have remained static or fallen. The prospects for the unskilled or unfit are bleak, and for others, challenging.

What time is it? Again, we could speak of time of life. For some of us the challenges of finding a career, a spouse, a place in society, are past. That’s not to say we do not still have decisions and changes to face and adapt to. Our role in family and friendship group will change, perhaps with the arrival of another generation, perhaps with being unable to do some of the things which used to define our role any more. Perhaps we are more likely now to face the challenges of illness, of bereavement, of restricted mobility and activity. – but how will we face up to them? Have we built up the resources?

What time is it? Any of these answers might be correct – chronological, economic, time of life, but I would like to direct you to today’s readings (reading Romans 13:11-14). They tell us firmly that it is time to wake up, to take stock and live with careful intention. Jesus says (in gospel passages like Matthew 24:36-44), “Since you don’t know when opportunities will end, when the Lord returns, or death strikes suddenly, or even when illness restricts your capabilities, then wake up, and life carefully NOW” Avoid distraction, forget excuses.

For some of those who heard him, the end came disastrously in the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem. But the instruction is not only for those in Palestine, or that first generation. Paul writes to Christians in Rome :

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light;

Romans 13:11-12

What time is it? Whatever your economic situation or stage of life, it is time to wake up. Your life carries responsibility, to live as an obedient follower and disciple of Jesus. Put down distractions, excuses, alternative views, and be ready to give an account. If the thought of that is troubling, then repent and accept forgiveness – and put things right while there is time. The warning of Advent is not about making you frightened, but is an act of love to save you from great loss.

What time is it? Time to wake up and live for Christ.

Putting him in his place

Does toleration demand religious pluralism? Our society is full of different belief systems – and increasingly so as they mix and mingle. The situation was much the same in Colossae, a small town in Asia Minor / Turkey. There was a church founded by Epaphras, one of Paul’s converts. The town was founded on a trade in purple dyed wool (purple from cyclamen). But the Church was troubled by false teaching, a mixed and complicated drawing from many sources – Christian, Jewish, Greek mystery cults . . .In fact, many similarities with twenty first century society.

Paul writes to the Church, and quickly speaks of Jesus. We face a temptation to avoid him, to talk instead about our tradition, how we like to do things. Shouldn’t we just take Jesus as one teacher among many ? – what about Muslim view of Jesus, about the Mormons Joseph Smith, and the Bahai’s Bahaullah. You can get lost here – but not with Paul.

Paul is going to spell out the importance of Jesus (we are reading from Colossians 1:11-20) :

[God] “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “

Colossians 1:13

This is the story of conversion– an individual coming to faith, not just to personal satisfaction and clarity, but life!

Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[d] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[e] him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place. Jesus first, superior to all he created (including many of these strange spiritual things we don’t know much about. Christianity is not committed to saying there are no other spiritual powers or forces – but asserts the greatest of all). You can’t say that, and then follow it with “Jesus is one among many teachers and holy men” or “Jesus is another prophet”. It doesn’t make sense – you must choose one or other. Jesus is the head of his body, the church; he is the source of the body’s life. He is the first-born Son, who was raised from death, in order that he alone might have the first place in all things.

“For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God.

Colossians 1:19,20

It was through the Son, then, that God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. Jesus is not just part or the church, or founder of the church – he is head, and life-source, and living ruler. Jesus is the one who brings us back to God – Christ is King because of the Cross, and that by the plan and decision of God. Paul will not allow Jesus’ role to be diminished, his place as head and ruler of the Church to be challenged.

Here we are in the twenty first century. Yes, we have many faiths, traditions and practices, and our Christian faith leads us to respect the freedom of people to believe, and even get faith wrong. But, is there a greater prophet? Someone more modern who will put Jesus in his lower place? Would you seriously think of replacing the creator of the universe, who played the key and costly role in setting us free? That would indeed be madness.

Proper Waiting

Waiting comes in different forms. We wait for good news, or for bad news, hoping it won’t come but half expecting it will. All waiting can do strange things to the way we live:

  • ordinary things sometimes lose importance
  • or some things get more important
  • we may do “displacement activity”, busy with irrelevant things
  • we may do nothing – and just “freeze”

When Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, he reminds the Christians in Thessalonica that he had told them of Jesus return as King. It was, and is, an important part of faith. It should be reflected in a proper way of life, not fully absorbed in what is now, and the way people do things now. We sometimes talk about a pilgrimage, us on a journey, with the idea of “passing through”. But we easily forget that really we’re waiting for someone else, and we can’t hurry the journey along.

Of course, someone always gets the wrong idea. Some Thessalonians heard Paul, and gave up work. What was the point if Jesus was coming back? So not only did they sponge on other people for food and necessities, in their idleness they started gossiping, giving the whole community a bad reputation. Paul is not having that. He had worked – not that he might not have claimed support, but he worked to give them an example.

This is not suggesting that the unemployed should starve! It is a reminder that Christians should be usefully occupied. All Christians. If you have to work for a living, good. Do it well, and make the most of those contacts you make to witness to your faith in Jesus. Not easy? Try to find help, and learn ways to do it properly – without bullying. Students, don’t waste that course! You have a responsibility there. If you don’t have to work for a living, or can’t get a job at the moment, good. Give thanks for your freedom, but don’t imagine you needn’t account for your use of time and energy! There is a lot to be done, in family & community.

Everybody, avoid gossip, and idle chatter which leads to general (and proper) criticism. There is a story (was it of John Wesley?), who was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow. He took out his diary, checked his engagements, and said yes, that was what he’d do. We are all meant to live, to be ready for Jesus to come, but also to carry on as long as necessary. It’s all part of our understanding of God’s Kingdom:

  • on the one hand Jesus will come back, so don’t get too used to the way things are; don’t imagine that what everybody else does must be right
  • but don’t get so focussed on the future that you don’t do a good job of work (paid or voluntary!), or forget to help people now

Christian faith is never to be an excuse for not doing what needs to be done on earth now. But we always live knowing that what is on earth now is not as important as what will be at the end.

Panic or Potter?

Most of us are less kind when we are being threatened, and less generous if we’ve had a shock or been unsettled. No wonder, then, that Paul wants to settle and reassure his friends in Thessalonica who have been shocked and disturbed by conflicting teaching about the end of the world.

As we read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 and 13-17, we see Paul’s balance. He has told these Christians to expect Jesus return, with power and judgement, bringing vindication for the faithful. It is not surprising that they are disturbed by reports that Jesus has already returned – while they are still struggling with persecution and difficulty.

On the one hand, Paul reassures them that Jesus has not yet returned. That is still (for them, and for us) in the future, and they should take heart and be encouraged. It is a difficult time, but that is to be expected.

On the other, Paul urges this church to stand firm. They are to get on with Christian life, showing and sharing the glory of the risen Lord as they go about their work. God’s grace will give them all they need, and they are secure in what he has promised.

It is interesting to ask whether your Church over or under emphasises teaching about the end of the world. There is much which will be clear only when it happens, but the promise of the full realisation of God’s just and gentle rule is something to look forward to. It encourages us as we get on with the sometimes difficult reality of Christian living.

[I found Mariam Kamell’s comments on the Working Preacher website very helpful, and think you might too.]

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.