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Sermon: The Unexpected Arrival

Date Preached: Sunday 28th November 2010

Bible Reference: Luke Chapter 24 verses 36-44

I’m sure you’ve been there. It’s the start of a season when unexpected visitors just drop in, isn’t it. If you’re anything like the Davies’s you’ll be completely completely unprepared: house looks like a wreck, dishes unwashed; books and magazines, coffee mugs and biscuits lying around: the sort of cheerful untidiness any family can produce in about – half an hour!! And suddenly there’s a ring at the doorbell – and it’s the ‘posher’ side of the family – mum had warned me that they’d be in the area and might call in, but as sometimes happens I’d completely forgotten! Oops...

Well you can imagine the next five minutes – calmly suggesting the visitors have a quick look around – in the garden if it’s not too chilly - to get a good look at the vicarage from the outside and the problems we’ve been having with drainage (Joel dispatched to do that one) – and then inside having to move quickly into ‘whirling dervish’ mode, to tidy everything up. Within minutes all is clear (although where it gets hidden in nobody’s business), everything looks tidy enough (just) – Joel now retreats into his bedroom as any sensible kid would, tea - in proper cups and saucers (managed to find them) - is produced and the visit goes ahead.

Well you can tidy a house in a few minutes - if you absolutely have to – but what you can’t do is reverse the direction of a whole life or a whole culture. By the time the doorbell rings on this one, you’re way, way too late. And that’s what this passage in Matthew and the next one is all about

We have to understand that a great many readers have seen here in Matthew a warning to Christians to be ready for the second coming, the return, of Jesus. We’ve been promised in the first chapter of Acts and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and many, many other passages, that one day, when God remakes the entire world, Jesus himself will take centre stage. He will ‘appear’ again, as Paul and John put it. And since nobody knows when this is going to happen, it’s vital that all Christians should be constantly ready.

On the other hand, many readers have seen the warning to be ready for their own death. Whatever precisely you think happens immediately after you die – and that’s a subject devout Christians have often disagreed about – it’s clearly important that we should be ready for that great step into the unknown, whenever it is asked of us – and things that happen at points certainly put that reality into perspective for us. That’s one of the many reasons for keeping short accounts with God – not hanging onto the nastier stuff in our lives and letting it fester – with the help of regular worship and fellowship, prayer, reading scripture, healthy self-examination and Christian obedience – that’s why it all matters as much as it does.

So it’s possible to read this passage in either or both of those ways. Often the voice of God can be heard in scripture even in ways the original writers hadn’t imagined – though you need to hang onto a clear sense of what they did mean, so as not to abuse scripture and make it prove all kinds of things it clearly doesn’t. That’s why we’ve spent time trying to read the gospels as they would have been heard by Luke’s and now Matthew’s first audience. And so it seems we’re going back to the great crisis that was going to sweep over Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside at a date unknown to them – although we know it to be AD70 – at the climax of the war between Rome and Judea. Something was going to happen that would devastate people’s lives, families, whole communities – something that was both a terrible, frightening event in history and also, at the same time, the event that was to be seen as the coming of the Son of Man – the parousia – the royal appearing of King Jesus himself. And the whole passage says that it will be the swift and unexpected sequence of events that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and – the Temple.

So much for a bit of background - what’s the point of the passage and what can we learn on this Advent Sunday?

Well first nobody knows when this event is going to happen – they just know it’s sometime soon. Second life will go on as normal right up until the last minute - & that’s the point of Matthew’s parallel with Noah’s time when a flood came to sweep everything away when ordinary life was carrying on as if nothing was going to happen. Third (and we’ve had this one before, haven’t we?) it will divide families and work colleagues right down the middle. ‘One will be taken and the other left’ probably doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that one person will be taken away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is left to face destruction. If anything, it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will take some off to their deaths, and leave others untouched. You might have watched the film ‘Schindler’s List’ where the Camp Commandant picked off the Jews, killing them arbitrarily with his rifle from a balcony. No-one had any idea who was next.

The result – and this is something Jesus is anxious to get across to his disciples, who must have been really puzzled as to what was going on – is that his followers must stay alert and awake, - like people who know that there are going to be surprise visitors coming sooner or later, even if they don’t know exactly when.

The next warning Jesus gives – about the thief in the night - explains what this means in more detail (and let me just mention this as we finish).

Okay so this warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency of the first century – after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and before all his prophecies about the Temple all came true. But it also rings true through all the years since and into our own day – that’s the amazing thing about Scripture. Because (don’t we know it), we also live in turbulent, precarious times, don’t we? Who knows what’s going to happen next week, or next year? When I was teaching over in Ireland in the late 90s and early Noughties (as they refer to them) their Celtic Tiger economy was buoyant – and now, suddenly, they’re in dire straits. We really don’t know what’s around the corner. So it’s up to each church, and each individual Christian, to answer Jesus’ question. Are you ready? Are you awake? Am I?

We’re pushing forward together – and I was reminded, to keep alert – not just because of the lead nicked from the church roof!! or the problems with the new heating system - but by a combination of events that suggest that the “dark powers that be” aren’t particularly enamoured of a community of Christians getting serious about Jesus and about mission and outreach – about deepening in their discipleship and love for one another.

So here’s a serious ‘big fat slap’ as one of my northern student friends from Oxford used to colourfully put it – to keep us honest, prayerful, considerate, forgiving of one another – alert and watchful, but calm – amidst the turmoil of change and challenge.

Now you know by now that I’m a great fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I’ve always enjoyed the book (or books) – and read them three times in total (it’s a long read), but the release of the three films over the last few years really brought it to life.

Although a great proportion of the story is focused on two hobbit characters - Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee - and their mission to ensure the destruction of the ring which all sorts of questionable characters are trying to get their hands on because it’s the key to total power and domination over Middle Earth. (I shan’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen them!) But there’s an important sub-plot to the story - a continuing theme that runs underneath. And it’s the story of Aragorn. Over the course of the three books we come to realise that Aragorn (played by Vigo Mortenson) is the heir to the throne of a kingdom called Gondor. And the victory that is won by Frodo with the final destruction of the Ring at Mt. Doom (oops, now I’ve given the ending away) - well anyway, none of this will be realized until Aragorn is crowned king.

Today is Advent Sunday – ‘advent’ a word derived from the Latin word ‘adventus’ meaning ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ – it’s all about the coming of the King. In the same way as in the Lord of the Rings, although it’s right to focus on Jesus the baby King – which foreshadows his redeeming work of salvation on the cross there is, nevertheless, a sub-plot that underlies everything that’s going on. For the victory that is won by our King - Jesus - with the destruction of the power of death will have its ultimate realization when Jesus returns as King over all. And it’s this that’s the wonderful end-point of history that we look forward to – with all the longing of our hearts

AMEN  

       
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