Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: Light in the Darkness

29 November 2015
10:30 Sung Eucharist
 Advent 1
Revd Jonathan Cain
 Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

Many of you will be familiar with the work of the human rights charity Amnesty International; some of you may even be members.  As a single candle burns in our Advent wreath this morning I am reminded of Amnesty’s logo, a candle with barbed wire around it; an image suggestive of the presence of light in the world but with barbs or darkness to overcome.

The authors of our two readings this morning, the prophet Jeremiah and the Evangelist Luke, were separated in history by some 700 years, and yet there were similarities in their context.

Jeremiah spanned the ‘golden age’ of the Judean king Josiah and the subsequent fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the deportations of the Judean population into captivity in Babylon.  It was in Josiah’s reign that the lost Book of the Law was found.  For thirty years this righteous king led the people of Judah out of the darkness of idolatry and into the light of worshipping the one true God of Israel.  But Josiah’s thirty year reign was sandwiched between rulers who, to use the language of Old Testament historians, “Did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”  Judah collapsed.  Exile followed, the pain of which is captured in a highly poetic and extraordinarily moving book of Lament.  As we read Lamentations we want to avert our eyes from the violence and suffering; experiences of warfare, siege, famine and death; brave men reduced to begging, mothers unable to nurse their children.

Amid the pain and suffering Jeremiah consoles the people.  God will fulfil God’s promise; justice and righteousness will triumph; Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.

Luke was writing towards the end of the first century.  His generation lived under Roman rule; had experienced the unpredictable violence and cruelty of Emperor Nero, and were likely living in the time of the megalomaniac Emperor Domitian, whose preferred title was ‘dominus et deus’ – ‘master and god.’  Earlier in the gospel chapter Jesus had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem; by the time Luke wrote Jesus’ words down this destruction had already happened.  These were dark times.  The early Christians had expected Christ to return in their lifetime.  Christ had not returned; they were losing faith.

It is amid this pain, suffering and uncertainty that Luke consoles his readers with the image of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  This image echoed the apocalyptic writing of the Book of Daniel; writing that addresses an important, perhaps the fundamental theological issue.  Daniel’s Jewish readers struggled to reconcile their belief in the sovereign power of God with the reality of Gentile imperial rule.  How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  The early Christians had the same struggle.  How could they reconcile their belief in the sovereign power of God revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ, with the reality of Roman imperial rule?

In the Old Testament stories the Gentile kings are shown as slowly recognising that it is the “Most High” who is truly sovereign and that they rule only by divine permission.  Luke consoles by reminding his readers of Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man in the heavenly court.  Daniel writes …

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

As Christians, we understand this ‘one like a human being’ to be Jesus, the Son of Man, co-eternal with the Ancient One, God the Father.  Christ, the one who will come with power and great glory as judge at the end of the age.

Consoled with the knowledge of the eternal kingship of Christ, Luke’s readers were and are freed from confusion about sovereignty, to follow Jesus’ command to ‘be alert.’  So what are we to be alert to?

Throughout history many have attempted to predict the end of the world with often humiliating and sometimes disastrous results.  In Matthew and Mark’s gospel accounts Jesus makes clear the futility of such attempts … “but about that day or hour no one knows,” Jesus says, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Rather than be alert for a single world-ending, I wonder whether it might be more helpful to think about multiple, perhaps even an infinite number of endings.  After all for individuals the world can end on any day with the start of war, an act of terror, the death of a loved one, a life-changing diagnosis or injury, the end of a relationship …

What might we be alert for in such circumstances?

We might be alert for signs of hope; and yet we might feel hopeless.  We might be alert for signs of a new beginning; and yet a new beginning might be out of reach.  At such times we share with our Biblical forebears the only real consolation; the image of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

We don’t know when the end will come, but we do know who will come at the end.

And so I say …

People of God: awake! The day is coming soon when you shall see God face to face. Remember the ways and the works of God. God calls you out of darkness to walk in the light of his coming. You are God’s children.

Lord, make us one as we walk with Christ today and forever.