This is the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 27th November 2016, Advent Sunday in Year A.
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
“I was overjoyed, alleluia, when they said ‘come with us to the House of the LORD’.” Do you remember that song? I was reminded of it when I read Psalm 122 in the carpark this morning in preparation for writing today’s sermon. There is great joy in the company of believers approaching the great city of God; that place of gathering where God has chosen to be worshipped.
Earlier this week I re-read a Christian author by the name of Miroslav Volf, and he said, or rather wrote, that The Church is a ‘foreshadowing fellowship’ of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation. I really like that idea, a ‘foreshadowing fellowship’, it means that what we see now in the gathered saints in our sometimes small and sometimes large congregations is only a preview of what we will see and experience at the end of our days. That really gives us something to look forward to, eh? Well I think it does. Volf went on to say that ‘The City of God’ is actually the people and not the place nor the infrastructure of the place where God is: the city is the people amongst whom God dwells. I also like that because even though we read in Revelation that there is a city which descends from Heaven, a New Jerusalem, and we celebrate with the Jewish pilgrims their entry to Jerusalem in Psalm 122, what we are actually celebrating is the bringing together of living people into fellowship and not just the bricks and paths which enclose them. At the end of our journey there is a party, that is where we are going, and that is why we say ‘alleluia’ in response to that invitation.
So, I wonder if any of you have been on a pilgrimage, and have experienced the anticipation of the gathering ahead. I have had the experience of participating in two pilgrimages, although I can’t claim to be a pilgrim because I didn’t actually walk very far. Recently two friends of mine completed, on foot, ‘The Camino’ which is a pilgrim trail across Spain. They did the whole thing, stopping at hostels and so forth along the way. I have only been to the end point of the Camino, the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia; I was there in 2004, so at least I was at the party.
The other pilgrimage I have attended, and I did arrive on foot for this one, is the Festival of St Alban the Martyr. I attended twice, in 2003 and 2004. In this case people had walked for hours from their homes to gather at the shrine of St Alban on his saint’s day (21st June) to celebrate together and to remember the cause of faith in England and in other parts of the world. I walked from my home, a distance of at least 800 metres. The suffragan bishop of Bedford walked from Bedfordshire, (but not from Bedford), and he and his little team took about three hours to do that. Again there was a party in the sense of there being collective worship in the great Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, as well as a barbeque and a fun fair. Since, however, Alban died a martyr his festival often takes the theme of remembering suffering and in 2004 the feast celebrated, (if that is the right word), ‘Faith Against Torture’. I am wearing my badge today as a reminder of that, in the same way that Christian pilgrims of old would wear shells.
Pilgrimage toward a gathering, at a significant place of gathering, is a foretaste of victory and a sign of great faith located within the very real experience of death. To walk a long distance can cause pain, it can be dangerous and a struggle, and even if not beset by bandits and muggers the road surely consists of mud, sweat and the stink of animals. To have been a pilgrim, as I was to St Alban’s, or to simply gather in the piazza as the pilgrims arrive, as I did at Santiago, is to participate in a dress rehearsal of the gathering of all nations.
In today’s Psalm we read four, perhaps priestly, petitions.
1. In Psalm 122:6 we read a blessing upon all who love Jerusalem and who love what Jerusalem signifies.
2. In Psalm 122:7 we read a petition for the peace and security of the city itself.
3. In Psalm 122:8 we read a petition that the peace and security of the city, prayed for by the gathered congregation, would also be evident amongst their loved ones back home.
4. And in Psalm 122:9 we read a petition and a hope that the people who are praying would also get involved in the work of peace-building and bringing about this good in the world.
In other words, bless the place where we have gathered, Lord, and bless us as we seek to increase the good in this place.
When our focus is upon our brother-sisters in the congregation and we pray for their peace we are also praying for our own, since we are here with them. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem is a great idea when you are actually in Jerusalem, and to pray for peace among neighbours is a wonderful thing to do, and a pragmatic one, when it is amongst your neighbours that you are praying.
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, and we had 24:36-44 read for us this morning, we find some perhaps troubling words of Jesus. This passage speaks specifically about a coming time when God’s judgement upon unrighteousness will roll out, and some people will be removed from the earth in a purge of the wicked. Make no mistake; this is not a foretelling of the rapture, far from it. The context of the story, which is the link to Noah, makes it clear that the righteous people remain while the unrighteous are removed. Where two are working together and one is taken you want to be the one left behind.
Those who are taken away, by whatever means, are removed because they have not participated in the community of faith. By that I am not saying that God will simply disappear away everyone who doesn’t go to church, because the ‘community of faith’ is not the same thing as the congregation of the local fellowship. Remember that it is the Son of Man who is coming, and when he comes it is those who are not obeying the call to righteousness who will be swept away (Matthew 24:39) even as those outside the ark were swept away by the flood.
So if not the church, then who will be saved? Well of course the church will be saved, I’m not saying that it won’t be, just that the “us and them” is not that simple. Remember that the city of God is the people of God gathered in one place rather than the physical structure of Jerusalem or Rome? The same applies here. It is those who are part of the movement of prevailing grace and hard-fought peace that God chooses to maintain, not simply those located within the buildings with pointy rooves and arched windows. Paul’s letter to Romans (13:11-14) makes it a bit clearer for us. The ones who are ready for the return of the Son of Man are those who:
1. Recognise that the time is at hand. (13:11-12a). The Magi knew that the birth of Jesus was at hand, even though they knew nothing of Jesus himself or perhaps even of God. But they read the signs, knew the times, and were ready for the cosmic event because they were awake.
2. Live with regard to God and seek light in life. The Biblical narrative of Noah reads as though his family were the only righteous people on earth and everyone else was drunk and disorderly 24/7. Paul says the same sort of thing here in verses 12b-14. I don’t think this is a metaphor, but I do think it to be an over-exaggeration. The point is, however, well made. Live within the peace of Jerusalem, wherever you are. Pray for the prosperity of your neighbours, not that they would win Lotto and then share a sneaky half mil with you, but that things would go well with them. Pray that there would be nothing but fat sheep and rich clover in this valley, that every cow would give A2 milk and every bull Wagyu beef and the softest of leathers. Pray that you and your neighbours would live in harmony and fellowship, not merely tolerance, but genuine brother-sisterly love and concern for one another. Pray that having asked God to do all of this for you, and for them, that you would make yourself available to God to bring this about through your own welcome to friend and stranger.
“I was overjoyed, alleluia, when they said come with us.” Even if the Son of Man were not soon to return there would still be joy in the hard work of pilgrimage and fellowship. The city of God, the people gathered in community, compels us toward the goal of rich and inclusive unity in worship of God our loving Father, and deep celebration of each other.
Isaiah saw this in 2:2-5. Read.
So, how about it?