‘Be on guard … be alert … and pray’

I rarely reproduce my sermons on here but I had so many positive responses to yesterday’s message that I felt I would. It was based on the Lectionary Gospel lesson for the day.

These are notes, rather than a full text and in places I deviated, so it may read in a stilted style here and there.

Luke 21:25-36
Jesus is talking to the disciples about Signs of the End of the Age and The Coming of the Son of Man
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29 He told them this parable: ‘Look at the fig-tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
34 ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.’

‘Be on guard … be alert … and pray’
When our children Sian and Andrew were young – about 7 and 5 – we took them for a day plane spotting at Heathrow. In those days you could go to a viewing platform and spend a long time just watching the air traffic arriving and leaving.

We arrived to find dozens of people with banners all waiting for Michael Jackson to arrive. The camera crews were filming lookalikes, interviewing superfans and waiting for the moment when – sure enough – Jackson paused before driving away and looked up to the viewing platform and waved to the fans who screamed at the top of their voices as the moment they had been waiting for arrived.

They had arrived prepared and waiting for this moment. We were completely unprepared – taken totally by surprise.

Today’s Gospel reading is a reminder that we are waiting for something.

As Luke puts it: Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

It’s particularly interesting now that Advent is timed to follow on after the added chaos of Black Friday, or as the signs in Romsey yesterday said “Black Friday weekend”!

It’s imported from America and the irony is that it’s a shopping frenzy initiated there on the day after everyone pauses to give thanks – supposedly to God. On Tuesday, as a counter to Black Friday, UMC supports Giving Tuesday, encouraging people to give to charities.
Supporters are urged to spread the word on social media using the hashtag #GivingTuesday.

In 2014, more than $2.5 million was donated by US Methodists on #GivingTuesday. More than 770 projects and missionaries received more than 8,700 gifts. It was a global event, with people in 25 countries taking part.

For those who will listen, the first Sunday in Advent becomes a more crucial moment in every year – a theological pause before we get too engrossed in tinsel and turkey.

Each year the Lectionary refuses to let us dive straight into all the stuff of birth stories and instead focuses our attentions on the Second Coming of Christ. In Matthew, the readings focus on the unpredictable timing of Christ’s return. Mark adds that all of nature will be in an uproar. Luke has all of this, plus the disturbance of the nations.

Every year, this week is specifically a reminder that our hope is in Christ. Much more appropriately this year, as we seem to be yet again in a period of history devoid of hope for so many people, you and I are the carriers of a message of great hope.

We don’t have to have many conversations to know that a number of people have given up all hope. How does Luke put it? “on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”.

What is our message of hope? Well Fred Craddock in his commentary on Luke says it is important to understand how to read this section of the Gospel, written in a style called apocalyptic which means revelation, not doom-laden as popular culture so often understands it.

1    The coming of the Son of Man (vv25-28)
Jesus is telling people to be ready – to be prepared for the Second Coming. Of course the early disciples lived in the expectation that this would be almost immediate. Sadly we know that nations have been in anguish in almost every year of human history – but we still need to be ready.

2    The lesson of the fig tree (vv29-33)
The parable of the fig tree is a reminder to us that we need to have our spiritual antennae tuned to signals of where God is active – where the Kingdom of God is changing lives for the better; where we must join in.

3    Watch and pray at all times
Jesus stresses that the last thing the people of God must do is get weighed down by the pressures and anxieties of life. Watch and pray, watch and pray so that when Christ returns we are ready.

Fred Craddock says in his commentary that we need to understand that, in apocalyptic writing, the most crucial element is left to the end: so watch and pray at all times is Jesus’ urgent challenge.

We mustn’t minimise the weight of the news stories we hear each day but we mustn’t sink under them either. Every generation has faced moments that they believed signalled the end of Life as we know it – and some more imminent than we hear talked about today.

In each of those times, the Gospel call has been the same.

Watch and pray.

Share Jesus.

Be a people of Grace in a frequently grace-less world.

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