Rev’d Jonathan Gale
This afternoon I will be attending a service in the cathedral that celebrates forty years of ordination for women as priests in the Anglican Church. In honour of that I found a sermon by an old friend of mine, Charleen Hollington, who trained with me and have based this sermon on it. 
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the run-up to Christmas when we reflect on Christ’s coming into the world and prepare ourselves to meet him again – in His second coming.
The second coming.
We have a strange fascination, almost a pleasurable fear, about the End Times, The Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the Apocalypse. Hence the occasional Hollywood movie about these things.
But is that what the second coming is all about?
Every Sunday we stand up and affirm that we believe that Christ will return, to judge the living and the dead. Do we mean that literally? Figuratively? Either way, what are the implications for us of Christ’s return?
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, what we call the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus talks of a time when there will be terrible events happening, a time of fear and horror never before experienced by the world, and after those days, the world will see Jesus “coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory”.
Jesus goes on to say – and this was our reading this morning – that no-one knows when his second coming will happen – not even he. People will be going about their ordinary, day-to-day lives, and suddenly, Jesus will be there, like a thief in the night.
Before we consider all this, the first thing we have to do is to set the idea of the second coming within the overall, wider structure of our Christian belief.
We start with the creation – this universe of ours that we are part of – and ask: in Christian belief, what is going to happen to it ultimately?
As Christians we hold that the universe and everything in it is God’s creation, and it is a good creation. Yes, it is a fallen creation, shot through with problems and evil, but God created it to be fundamentally good, and so it is.
Now, in order to understand the second coming it is vital to understand first that this created world is just the first stage in God’s eventual creation.
Christianity does not teach that it all ends up is with disembodied souls in a place called heaven and other disembodied souls having a rough time in a place called hell. No.
The New Testament teaches us that God is in the process of creating new heavens and a new earth.
This present creation is a bit like the seed, and the new creation will be the flower. Or you could describe this creation as the chrysalis and the new creation as the butterfly.
This is what Paul is talking about when he says that the whole creation is groaning in birth pangs. History is not going to simply repeat itself endlessly. History is going somewhere, it will culminate in something: a new creation freed from evil.
Where will we humans be in all this?
We will be resurrected.
Just like Jesus, we will have material, physical bodies, living in a material, physical world. Naturally, our resurrected bodies and the new creation will have a new sort of physicality – we are talking about resurrection after all, not mere resuscitation.
For believers who die before the resurrection, heaven is a time of peace and rest with the Lord until we rise again with him in glory.
What role does Jesus play in all this?
Jesus is the very heart, the very centre of the new creation. Without his death on the cross, in which evil and death are overcome, there could be no new creation. Jesus’ death is a necessary part of God’s plan in bringing about the new creation.
What’s more, the resurrection of Jesus is our proof and our guarantee that the new creation will ultimately come about. It also demonstrates the new type of physical existence that we will have in the end, as part of God’s creation when it is complete.
When will time and history come to an end with the birth of the ultimate creation? What will it be like?
This is where we get to what we call the second coming. This is what Jesus is trying to describe in those passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke about his second coming.
Things get tricky here because language is so limited in trying to describe something so utterly beyond our comprehension.
But there are some things that we can accept as certain.
The first is that birth of the new creation will be part and parcel with the revealing of Jesus to all the nations of the world as Lord.
We are talking about the Big Reveal on a cosmic scale. This will be the birth of the new creation.
It will be a massively sudden and dramatic moment. As Jesus says in Matthew: as lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
In other words, we should probably think of the second coming not so much as a conqueror coming to quell a rebellion, but as the moment when the truth about the universe is revealed, when the veil is stripped away. [as per Tom Wright]
Some theologians argue that we should see the second coming in spiritual terms rather than in any literal or material way. [e.g. John 14:23]
For example, some say that when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the world at Pentecost, that was actually the second coming. Others say that the second coming is the moment when an individual person accepts Christ as their saviour [per William Barclay].
With respect, I don’t think this approach fits well with the New Testament teaching about the creation of new heavens and a new earth. I think there is a difference between the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which Pentecost was part of, and the second coming of Christ.
Can we agree that before Jesus is revealed, there will be terrible wars and famines and desolation in the world?
Many theologians argue that when Jesus talks about these terrible events that must precede his revelation, he is talking not about a world-wide conflict but about the destruction of the Temple and all Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It was indeed an event as terrible as Christ foretells, when there was starvation, killing, bloodshed and fighting amongst the Jews. Roman soldiers placed their standards in a wing of the destroyed Temple and offered sacrifices to their idols, and perhaps this was the “abomination that causes desolation” standing in the holy place that Jesus predicts. [Per Tom Wright and William Barclay]
As for the promise that at that time Christ would be seen coming on clouds of glory, it is argued that we must read this not literally but figuratively, meaning that Christ was vindicated by the destruction of the Temple, which had stood in opposition to his message. [Tom Wright]
Speaking personally, I still have a few doubts. I think there is an emphasis in the New Testament that this turmoil is something that will happen to the whole world.
We can accept that we don’t know when Jesus is going to be revealed as Lord, but whenever it happens, it will be sudden.
Regardless of whether the terrible wars referred to those in 70 A.D. or whether they are still to come, Jesus will still ultimately be revealed as Lord.
Now, not even Jesus knew when this would happen. All we know is that it could happen at any moment. It could happen while we are having tea and coffee after the service. In the imagery of Jesus, it will be like waking up to find a thief in your house – too late to do anything about it.
Finally, we can accept that when it happens there is going to be an accounting demanded from all Christians.
Do you remember the parables that Jesus told about the Master who goes away and leaves his servants some money, and who then returns and asks them to show what they have done with it?
Or the parable about the ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, and some of them fail to make sure they have got enough oil in their lamps, so they are shut out from the celebration?
In Matthew, these parables follow directly on from this morning’s reading.
What they are saying is that when Jesus’ lordship is shown to all the world, he will ask his followers – that’s us – for an accounting.
We will be asked to show what we have done with the bit of faith and love for Christ that we have been given.
Have we used it wisely? Has it borne fruit? Have we protected and nourished our love for Christ, kept our lamps full? That is what he will ask us to show him.
So, in the light of all this, what do we do?
The letters of Paul and Peter are full of advice on this point.
In the words of Peter [1 Peter 4:7-7]:
The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.
Therefore … as someone once said, when you see the word “therefore” in the Scriptures, you need to see what it’s there for.
- Therefore be earnest and disciplined in your prayers.
We spend time with and listen to the one we love. Prayer is conversation with God. Having God in mind and living every moment in God’s company is the heart of prayer. That is when we can say with David in Psalm 39: 7 7 ‘And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.
- Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.
Deep love. Not always easy, but with God all things are possible. And having deep love for one another brings hope because it covers a multitude of sins, as Peter tells us.
If we do this, we need never fear waking up to find Jesus standing in the house like a thief in the night, saying, gently but with inescapable sternness:
What have you done with what I gave you?
Isaac Watts wrote, “O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come”
At Advent we take our eyes off that thing we are so used to: looking back over the past to see what God has done; and look to the future, what God has yet to do. That is our hope! Hope has to do with the future, and on this first Sunday of Advent, when we contemplate hope, we look to the only place we can place our hope: and that is in God.
It is both a daunting and an exciting thought because our hope is not simply some sort of passive rescue, it is a life. As Paul prayed for the Ephesians: 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you,
 This sermon is based on one preached by the Rev’d Charleen Hollington on the 1st Sunday in Advent, 28 November 2010
Readings from today:
- Isaiah 64: 1 – 9
- 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9
- Matthew 24:36-44