(for St Bartholomew’s day)
Today is St Bartholomew’s Day. He is mentioned in each of the four lists of Jesus’ twelve apostles (e.g. Mt 10:3). In Matthew’s gospel he is paired with Philip. In John’s gospel Philip describes Philip finding a friend called Nathanael, who also became a follower of Jesus. Many believe therefore that this is the same person. ‘Bar’ actually means of ‘son of’, so the the saint would Nathanael, son of Tholomaeus. Outside the New Testament we don’t know a great deal about him. But there are strong traditions that he went preaching the gospel to India and Armenia and that he died in Armenia as a martyr. Because we don’t know much about him the lectionary readings focus on the apostles as a group. The Acts reading portrays the growing church and its healing ministry and says how ‘the people held the apostles in high esteem’. Somewhat ironically the gospel reading portrays the apostles as having an argument about status, the opening verse (Lk 22:24) said, “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest”. This shows a great paradox, it was only when the apostles had learnt that status didn’t matter that they were able to move on and become people help in high esteem. And our saint, Bartholomew, is a great example of this. There is so little about him in the NT and yet thousands of churches are now named after him. So let us this morning think a bit more about this gospel reading and as our patron saint took Jesus’ lesson to heart let us seek to do so as well.
1. How the world sees greatness.
The Message version translates v.25, “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles”. I think this helps us to see what Jesus was concerned with. The abuse of power and an obsession with status. Of course it is a sweeping statement, but like many generalisations too often there is truth in it. Like the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Many years ago, a book was written about what the author saw as the three great temptations for Christians, it was called, “Money, Sex and Power”.
And just as money itself is not sinful, but the love of it is, so also power in itself is not sinful, it is the ability to get things done, to make things happen. But love of power for its own sake can easily take over. I recently read a biography of Margaret Thatcher and it was fascinating to see how her leadership as Prime Minister started out with having consultation with co-leaders as a key part of it, but that that deteriorated over time. For all of us, the fact that we can exercise power does not mean it is necessarily always right to do. It is always good to get the opinions of others. The best corrective to the abuse of power, is the humility to listen to what others have to say. A challenge for all of us is do we listen to others when we have decisions to make. The second failure of much leadership is an obsession with status, “Do you know who I am?” The problem with status is that we seek to get it from the wrong things - family background, social class, our job at work, our position on commitees or in leisure activities. There are many problems here. One is the very temporary nature of the status in many of these. The other is that what gives us status in one area of life, does not necessarily mean we should be treated with deference in other areas of life. For the Christian our primary status is that we are children of God. If we keep that central, we should keep other sources of status in perspective.
2. The leader who serves
Jesus goes on to talk about his followers having a servant heart. He says that he was among them as one who serves (v.27). This reading comes from the account of the Last Supper, and we know from John’s gospel that Jesus gave a very practical demonstration of this by washing the disciples feet. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says (v.26), “the greatest among you should be like the youngest” - this was said in an age where old age brought you respect and status, and where to be a child was to have no status at all. Jesus was subverting the society’s values. So there is a clear call to serve others and particularly those that have the least value in society’s eyes or more personally, in our own eyes. Who do you think is the least important member of this congregation? How can you serve that person? That is quite a challenge.
But even if we think about serving more generally. What does it mean to serve one another in this congregation? I think it means to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to try and see church from their point of view and ask how ourselves how can I help church be good for that person? What about the new person who doesn’t know what page we are on, or when to sit or stand? What about the younger person who enjoys hymns with a bit more rhythm and bounce? Or the older person who loves the comfort of old familiar hymns known from childhood? Or the young mother struggling with her child who needs encouragement to keep coming? Or the person surrounded by noise all week who longs for some quiet and stillness? We are all different, we all have different spiritual, emotional or practical needs. We are all at a different point in our spiritual journey?
Can I make a suggestion? Either when you arrive at Church on a Sunday morning, or when you come up for Communion, look at 2 or 3 other people who are here and ask yourself what it would be like to be those people, what their needs might be? and, of course, one way to find out, is to talk to them afterwards and find out what church had been like for them that morning.... and then we might be in a position to know how we can ‘serve’ that person. And, of course, once we are learning how to serve one another in Church we will then perhaps be able to learn how to serve our neighbours and colleagues. But let us start with being better at serving one another.
3. The reward is more responsibility
Finally, let us notice what Jesus says at the end of our reading which may feel a bit odd after all the negative things Jesus has said about “kings” and how is disciples are to serve one another. In verses 29 and 30 he says, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
It sounds almost as if Jesus is saying, “if you are humble and serve now, then you will get to be kings with incredible power in the end”
But that just doesn’t fit with the whole tenor of what Jesus is saying, and especially about the fact that he is “the servant King”.
If we think that servanthood now means power later, then we have completely misunderstood what Jesus has said about the call for leaders to be servants. What he is saying is that once his disciples have learnt how to serve one another, they will then be qualified for greater opportunities for service. And we so often misconstrue what ‘judging’ is. It is not deciding in our own power what the right thing is. It is bringing justice to a situation. It is to get to a depth of truth about a person or situation, that the right thing can be done. To be a skilled judge in that sense, is to have the ability to understand a person, their motives, their actions and so to be able to establish justice. So you see in the whole of the passage Jesus is saying that he wants us to stop focussing on ourselves, and make better attempts at understanding others so that we can bring justice to his kingdom.
As I close let me just read to you the last verse of “The Servant King”
So let us learn how to serve,
and in our lives enthrone him;
each other’s needs to prefer,
for it is Christ we’re serving.
For what seems like a long time now we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’ve encountered some difficult ideas, some parts which relied on our understanding of Jewish thinking and history – and now today we come to a passage which we can understand! No long sentences; no convoluted arguments – just a list of the ways in which love must first permeate the Christian community, and then seep out to those who are not so friendly.
Paul lists his instructions like a volley of bullets – bang, bang, bang – and that makes them a bit difficult to take on board. For that reason I thought today we might have a slightly different way of looking at things.
We all know that 12 red roses is a symbol of love – so here goes! The first verse says,
1. “Love must be sincere” (verse 9a)
The word Paul uses that is translated as ‘sincere’ means ‘without hypocrisy’. The ‘hypokritēs’ was an actor in a play. He was playing a part; making his audience believe that what he was doing and saying was real.
Of course there is such a thing as pretence-love, but that is not the kind of love which must permeate a Christian community. Our kind of love must never be hypocritical.
So here is our first red rose representing ‘Sincerity’.
When love is genuine and sincere it will be seen in various actions:
2. “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (verse 9b)
Love is sometimes thought of in terms of being a blind sentiment, but in fact it is very discerning. If you really love someone then you will dislike anything which is incompatible with their welfare. Sincere love will produce a loathing of all that could hurt the one you love, and a wish for them to enjoy all that is good for them. Love and hate are strong feelings but they indicate the level of discerning care we should have for the wellbeing of our fellow Christians.
(Add 2nd rose – ‘Discernment’)
3. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (verse 10a).
This phrase describes the natural ties of affection which should exist in any family – the love of a parent for a child; the feelings brothers and sisters have for each other. The ties of love within a family should be replicated in the warm affection uniting members of God’s family, whether they are actual blood relations or not.
(Add 3rd rose representing ‘Affection’)
4. “Honour one another above yourselves” (verse 10b)
Last week Colin mentioned this same idea. He said it was not right to get on one’s high horse and take the attitude of ‘I’m the Rector’… or ‘I’m the headmistress’… or whatever…
Instead we should recognise the importance of every other person, and accord to each the highest possible honour. Each of us has talents and abilities – Nobody is so outstandingly brilliant that they can do everything better than everyone else – and no-one can do nothing. Every single person is to be honoured, respected and appreciated in the Church family.
(Add 4th rose – ‘Honour’)
5. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord” (verse 11)
Some commentators feel this phrase is linked to the previous one – If others are more capable and deserving than we are, then that could give us the excuse to do nothing much… because someone would do the job much better than me. However, if love truly rules in our church family, all the practical commitments we have towards both God and our fellow believers should ensure that our enthusiasm for the task will never flag. Have you noticed – there is always something else to do? This is a prod to keep on keeping on – with enthusiasm, and with the help of others!
(Add 5th rose – ‘Enthusiasm’)
6. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (verse 12)
But of course, sometimes things are hard going. Then we have to look forward in hope – be patient – pray about things.
(Add 6th rose – ‘Patience’)
7. “Share with God’s people who are in need” (verse 13a)
The word ‘share’ can either mean to share in people’s needs and sufferings, or to share out our resources with them. We have a social responsibility to all people, but especially towards other believers. One of the expressions of the early Church in Jerusalem was that its members “had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). This was a voluntary sharing – a means of making sure that everyone had the essentials to live on.
In the main we are so fortunate here, but we only have to watch the news or read a paper to know that there are Christians in other parts of the world who really need our loving generosity.
(Add 7th rose – ‘Generosity’)
8. “Practise hospitality” (verse13b)
In Paul’s day hospitality was especially important – there were few places to stay, and those that existed were somewhat unsavoury and unsafe. To welcome a traveller, a stranger, into your home was an expression of love that Paul had good reason to be grateful for. It may perhaps be different today, but there are many who would appreciate the sharing of a meal.
(Add 8th rose – ‘Hospitality’)
9. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (verse 14)
This anticipates the last verses (verses 17-21) of the passage in that Paul is beginning to think of the love that believers should show to those outside their own community. ‘Blessing’ and ‘cursing’ are opposites -wishing people good or ill. To bless those who persecute is quite a challenge. It’s hard enough not to wish all those difficult folk just a bit of punishment for their awkwardness, and they are not really our persecutors… But to retaliate is not to show true Christian love. (Add 9th rose – ‘Good will’)
10. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (verse 15)
Identifying with others in their joys and in their sorrows is a Christian’s privilege and responsibility. This aspect of love comes across in our sympathy, whether people are glad or sad.
(Add 10th rose – ‘Sympathy’)
11. “Live in harmony with one another” (verse 16a)
This literally means ‘mind the same things’. Those who share the same concerns and beliefs will be able to live and work together without falling out.
(Add 11th rose – ‘Harmony’)
12. “Do not be proud, but willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (verse 16b)
To be a snob and so to be concerned with the status and class of others is a very divisive and thoroughly unloving kind of pride. Although here it talks of people of low position, actually this can work in both directions – some look down on others, while others will have nothing to do with those they perceive to be in higher positions. Jesus fraternized with all, and we are called to do the same – we are all human beings and all equally important in God’s eyes.
(Add 12th rose – ‘Humility’)
So – there is our bunch of ‘Love’. I’m sorry it doesn’t smell nice!
The final verses seem to be covered by two things: ‘No retaliation’ and ‘No revenge’.
I found this way of summing up today’s verses, which I’d like to read to you:
“Transformation begins when an individual takes his (or her) place in the ‘family’ of Christ. His own stock goes down. His opinion of others goes up. And individual gifts are pooled for the good of the whole Christian community. We put ourselves at God’s disposal, and we don’t pull out when the going gets hard. Old attitudes change – not only towards fellow Christians but towards the outside world. Instead of giving tit-for-tat when we are wronged we treat the enemy as if he were our best friend, and we leave God to do the judging”.
Matthew 13:24-29, 36-43 'The Wheat and the Tares' by Zandra Lomas
Matthew 13:44-50 - The treasure, the pearl and the net by Judith Smith
Advent 3 – John the Baptist – Isaiah 35: 1-10 (p.719) and Matthew 11: 2-11 (p.1427)
Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when we traditionally think of John the Baptist and the way in which he prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
Luke relates how John was born as the special child of elderly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and he explains how Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth before John’s birth and after Gabriel had told her that she too would have a child, who would be called Jesus.
So, not only were John and Jesus related to each other, but also they were of a very similar age. Luke tells us that Jesus began his ministry when he was 30 years old (Luke 3: 23), so John must also have been about 30 when he came from his solitary life in the desert and began to preach. Isaiah described him as, “A voice of one calling in the desert” who said, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Isaiah 40:3).
John’s job was to prepare people for “the kingdom of heaven”, which he said was very near. To be ready for God’s rule they must “repent” – that is they must make radical changes to the way they were living. And people had every intention of doing that – They asked John what they should do to alter their ways. He pointed them in the direction of care and consideration for those around them, and he baptised them as a sign of their intention to change.
John was not afraid to tell people when he saw wrongdoing going on. He even extended his rebuke to Herod, the governor of Galilee, who had divorced his wife in order to marry his own niece, who also just happened to be his brother’s wife at the time. Herod was not amused and put John in prison. And this is where we find him in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11:2).
Poor John was experiencing a crisis – In his prison cell he was no longer as sure about Jesus – about all that he had preached about him – about the rule of God that he had been so sure was near.
John was incarcerated at the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea. It must have been scorching hot and very uncomfortable – torture for a man who had been used to living outdoors for much of his life, and able to stride freely over the hills. No wonder he had questions and doubts in such a situation.
John’s disciples kept him informed about what Jesus was doing and saying, but perhaps Jesus was turning out to be a different sort of Messiah to that which John had imagined – or worse, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah at all…
In his mind things were becoming confused and out of proportion; because of his situation doubts were beginning to grow; he was no longer so sure… So John sent his friends directly to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
John had announced the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, but while he was languishing in prison, the work that Jesus had been doing had not brought the results that John had expected. It was only natural that he should feel disappointed – He needed reassurance. Perhaps he felt Jesus needed urging to greater action….
We don’t know how well John knew his relation Jesus – it’s possible they had never actually met in person until Jesus came to John to be baptised that day, but the message Jesus sent back to John in prison should have been reassuring – It gave John plenty to think through while he had so much time on his hands.
Jesus said, “Go back to John and report what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear…” (Matthew 11:4-5).
It was a strange message to send, but these were the very same things that Isaiah linked to the coming of the Messiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
And of course John would know this passage and would be able to put two and two together and to realise that he had not been mistaken about Jesus after all. Physical deficiencies such as blindness, deafness, dumbness and being lame would all be put right when the Messiah came, and here was Jesus performing miracles of healing which addressed all these problems for people.
Matthew adds two other things, which Isaiah leaves out – “The dead are (being) raised, and the good news is (being) preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). Who are these ‘dead’ and ‘poor’ people? Yes, Jesus the Messiah did raise people to life in a physical sense and many people he talked to were not well off, but there is more to both categories than being physically dead or economically hard up.
These people are pictured as ‘dead’ and ‘poor’ because they don’t yet know “the good news” which Jesus is just beginning to explain to them. John preached a message of repentance, and Jesus is now offering them salvation – the two parts of the message fit together perfectly, and both are necessary for the establishment of God’s kingdom. Both Isaiah and Matthew imagine people’s reaction when they hear this good news – they will “shout for joy” and “leap like deer” when their ears are “unstopped” and they are able to hear and to truly understand.
But inevitably there will be those who refuse to listen and who are not delighted at the coming of God’s rule.
As well as being a time of looking forward to the full establishment of God’s kingdom, Advent for us is a time of considering that subject which we do not want to think about – the end of the world as we know it, the return of Christ, and how he will deal with those who want nothing to do with him.
However, a king must rule, or he is not a king at all, and that means he must put down any rebellion. There is plenty of rebellion in our world – you only have to listen to the news any day to know that love does not rule.
The Bible is full of warnings that things must change, and of course both Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking about this situation. John’s answer was to point to the one who was to come after him and to say to those who would listen – ‘Your part in this is to acknowledge things need to be different; to say you want to see change in your own ways of being and doing, and to leave God to work out what happens to everyone else. You have a choice in the way you respond to him, but not in the final outcome of things – that is God’s business and his alone. Thinking about that dreaded idea of judgement is all about recognising who God truly is and giving him his due.
It is not about a judicial or even a military event, but about God acting to claim the honour due to him as loving creator and ruler of the world.
Because God must assert his position, he must make us aware of the results of rebellion, but that is not what he delights in. What he is working towards is salvation and great joy for a redeemed and remade world, and Isaiah 35 is a beautiful poem describing this.
One commentator says, “In chapter 35 it is as though a brilliant shaft of light breaks through the clouds and all is bathed in splendour again. Arid wastes burst into bloom as the glory of the Lord comes down like refreshing showers, and the whole earth shouts for joy. It is a vision to steady trembling hands, strengthen weak knees, and lift fearful hearts” (Barry Webb p.144). What an encouragement this must have been for poor John stuck in his prison cell.
A great highway is described in verse 8 – “The Way of Holiness”, which leads to Zion, the city of God.
In Old Testament terms this was the road to Jerusalem, the place where God had his earthly dwelling place, and where pilgrims would go to worship him in his Temple.
In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews takes this idea a step further saying, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). The highway in this passage leads to heaven, but not just to heaven – it leads also to God himself. It is not the golden streets or the pearly gates that make heaven what it is, but the very presence of God. And it is God who provides the way to get there. This highway is only for those who accept the need of repentance that John preached about, and Jesus’ offer of salvation, made possible through the cross.
If you ever feel weary, down in the dumps, disheartened or unsure read these verses from Isaiah 35 – without doubt you will feel better! But they will also remind you of where you are going – You are on the highway leading into the very presence of God. Life is a journey – a journey along The Way of Holiness, which ends in the joy of heaven.
This short series looks at some of the key passages in the book of Jeremiah preached Autumn 2013
beginning with v 11
“See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand.”
There has been debate as to why Paul uses this phrase of “large letters.” I think, most probably, it means a kind of emphasis – Paul is saying that this whole letter is of the utmost importance and lots of points need highlighting, underlining – whatever method we would use today to stress importance and there are two very important points that Paul is stressing in this conclusion of his letter to the Galatians.
I would like to introduce these points via two stories.
Story 1 My friend’s little granddaughter enjoys her Bible stories. She asked grandma to read the story of “Jonah and the big fish,” as she calls it. When granny reached the part that said that the people of Ninevah had behaved badly, the little girl asked what they had done that was so naughty. After some thought granny replied, “Well, you see, they didn’t put their toys away.” The little girl was aghast and said, “That was so naughty! No wonder God was cross.” In her childish experience, she knew what “naughty” meant, and could compare it with being “good.” Part of being good, was “to put your toys away.” In v 9 Paul says,
“Let us not become weary in doing good…v10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”
How as grown –ups do we define good and its opposite – bad? Paul doesn’t define the word here, because he has spent a large part of the letter doing just that. Look across the page at Ch 5 v 19 - 26 where he gives us strong guidelines as to what is bad and good. How and why we practice being “good” depends on our belief and the choices that we make.” So the first point arising from this passage is what is good and how do we put it into practice?
Story 2 In the cookery examination room the candidates had been told to prepare a meal. One of the candidates had made a lemon meringue for desert and put it in the oven to finish off while she prepared other parts of the meal. The examiner announced that there was 10mins left and with horror the girl remembered the lemon meringue still in the oven. She opened the oven door to find a blackened mess and in a split second, scraped off the burnt meringue, whipped up a new one and as time was called pulled a perfect creation out of the oven , golden brown with towering peaks.
“What counts is a new creation…” says Paul. (v15b)
In the story the cook had obeyed all the rules and instructions, but the results were not what she needed to pass the exam. Human frailty had got in the way, so she had to show courage and initiative to make a new creation. Verses 12-15 are about obeying the rules – in this case it was the rule of circumcision. In order to be a proper Christian the rite of circumcision had to be obeyed. No! No! No! says Paul. It’s not about rules any more – what counts is being a new creation through faith. In ch 3 v 25, Paul says,
“Now that faith has come we are no longer under the supervision of the (Jewish) Law.”
The Law was important to lead us to Jesus so that now we can be justified by faith – all big Pauline themes we have pondered throughout this whole year. The cook whipped off the old, burnt meringue that would not achieve the required results and made a new creation. The examiner was pleased with her results and her initiative and the result was that she passed with honours.
Paul says that what counts is our becoming a new creation, but that brings us back to the point we reached at the end of the first story – how do we do this and how do we put it into practice? How do we make the choices that result in being and doing good – in other words in “putting our toys away,” as the child defined it. Let’s try and understand this by way of a third, sadly, true story.
3rd story This horrible account, that unfortunately is true, happened in America in Wyoming a decade or so ago. A young man, known to be gay, was leaving the university campus, when he was abducted by 3 young men who bungled him into a car, took him to a lonely country road, where they tied him to a fence and beat him up, leaving him to die. The gay student was tortured for who he was, by so called “doers of good.” Whatever made those young men think that what they were doing was right and proper and good? The answer is contained in just one word – very simple, but very, very powerful. That word is “belief.” The young men committed this atrocity, acted as judge, jury and executioner, because of their belief that gay people should not be allowed to walk the streets – they should be exterminated. Hitler had the same thoughts and belief that resulted in the holocaust– terrorists commit their atrocities because of their beliefs. And these beliefs are taught by society and religion.
It is so very true that our beliefs determine the way we think, act and behave and that is why Paul has spent so much time on faith and belief in this letter. All our behaviours are created by beliefs and we cannot make long term changes in behaviour without addressing the beliefs that underlie them. Societies that have, historically, caused the most upheaval in the world are those societies that have focused on beliefs – e.g. The Christian Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, Nazism, The Mao tse Tung Communism. This is not to overlook the good practice has also been evident in the establishment of Church Schools in Victorian times and also the work of people like Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice centres for the terminally ill.
Paul is saying here that our belief in God and Jesus Christ should transform us into a new creation –enabling us to define and know how to practice what the word “good” truly means, as Paul shows us in the fruits of the Spirit, in Galatians 5 v 22-23.
In desperation, Nelson Mandella once believed that the way to end the cruelty of Apartheid was through violence against the perpetrators and thought sponsors action. Later he changed this belief and achieved the same result in a different, non-violent way. He put his belief into thoughts and taught them to others and became a shining light to his oppressed people and to the world.
The creed begins: I believe…and as we wend our way through it we are stating belief that should determine responsibility for our thoughts and actions – and this is precisely the point that Paul is making about Christian belief. We have the guidelines but we have to work it out the practice for ourselves. And it is playing out all around us:
1. In the friend who worked out a route for me to find an awkard spot.
2. 4 lovely new laid eggs on the doorstep.
3. The A51 jogger, in last Thurs. morning rush hour who noticed a milk crate in the road and retrieved it to prevent an accident.
We are to be encouraged by good, simple practice, giving thanks.
Our belief is an expression of our soul and mind. Tom Wright in his book “Virtue Reborn” tells us that our belief determines the kind of virtues we express and the good that we do until it becomes second nature – a complete way of being.
A final pause for thought. Herman Kummel was a doctor in the latter part of the 1800’s, who had a terrible time trying to convince other physicians that it was good practice to wash hands before surgery. The scrubbing up idea turned him into a laughing stock and he was practically driven out of his profession by those who refused to consider this new belief and therefore, put it into practice.
Humans have an incredible stubborn tendency to set beliefs and practices that can slow our evolutionary processes and hinder our spiritual growth. We have been given the capacity to listen, reason, discuss and broaden our understanding because we don’t have all the answers – the challenge is to keep searching, to keep working at being a new creation.
Well, the world would be a poorer place without exciting challenges to broaden our understanding and quality of life for ourselves and others, –but remember -“ be good - put your toys away.”
Speaking for myself, Revelation is not easy to get to grips with. It’s a vision – as the title says, it’s a revelation – a prophecy. It’s full of picture language, symbolism, and maybe even secret code. It assumes its readers know the Old Testament, but it is very different from most of the rest of the Bible. It reassures believers who are being persecuted and talks of the future – of life in a new heaven and earth where there will be no more evil.
So, after much about strange symbolic beasts and angels and scrolls, which we should look at another time, we come, perhaps with some relief, to the description in chapter 21 of the new heaven and new earth where “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:3-4).
Ah – at last something we recognise! That comes in the funeral service – this must be a description of heaven.
So, what is this place like? It’s described as a city, surrounded by high walls and with twelve entrance gates. When John saw it he said, “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel…” (21: 11). And down the middle of the street flowed a river “as clear as crystal”, with beautiful trees covered in fruit growing on either side. That sounds really nice.
But for me, it sounds more like a place I’d prefer to visit rather than to live in permanently. I’m not a city person, and I prefer my rivers to be clear mountain streams. Does that mean that ‘heaven’ will not be quite as heavenly as it should be?
But we need to look more carefully, and then we shall see, as with so much else in Revelation, that this is not the description of an actual place, but rather a picture of something else. When John is shown the city he says, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (21: 2). This is a person – or rather many people, because the bride is in fact a picture of the Church.
In the Old Testament Isaiah pictures God’s people as his bride (Isaiah 54: 5). The idea was further developed when Jesus told his parable about those invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son (Matthew 22: 1-14), explaining that many of the original guests refused to take part, making all kinds of excuses. And Paul also describes the Church as being the bride of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph.5: 32).
Although it is described as having walls and gates, this would be a very strange city if it were a real place. In chapter 21 an angel measures its dimensions, and it turns out that this is a city, which could never be built. It is a perfect cube, measuring the same in length, width and height, and this perfect shape indicates that it is of God’s building. It is constructed of all the “living stones” which are described by Peter when he says, “you, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2: 5). All those who put their trust in Jesus, the cornerstone, will be a part of this amazing structure.
In writing to the church in Ephesus Paul tells them, “You are … fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2: 19-22).
This ‘city’ is being built – it is not yet complete, and it is certainly not just a pleasant holiday destination for those who have reached the end of their life here on earth and want to while away their time sitting under the trees by a beautiful river.
Of course, the crystal clear river is not ‘real’, any more than the city is. It is also a picture – a means of describing something. It is called “the water of life”. It flows from God’s throne in the city and runs down the middle of the street. It is there for everyone who is a part of this city – it is in fact what turns them into ‘living stones’ because the water of life is God’s Spirit. It is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 10), and what he later offered to anyone who was thirsty. John explained that these streams of living water were indeed the Spirit (John 7: 37-39) who would be given to believers to enable them to be ‘living (and active) stones’, to enable them to fulfil their role as part of this great city.
Then John says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev, 21: 1-2). It was into this remade earth that John saw the city, the bride of Christ, the Church, in all the perfection of each of its members, descending from God and radiant with his glory.
God will live there with his people, and “they will see his face” (22: 4). When in the Bible do we hear of human beings walking and talking with God like this? Well, right at the very beginning, in Genesis, before things went wrong.
When God created human beings he put them in a beautiful garden. It was watered by a river; there were all kinds of trees and plants, which were good for food, and two special trees. The tree of life they were allowed to eat from, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were not to touch, for God warned, “when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2: 16-17).
We all know the story of what happened. Not only did pain and death become part of humanity’s lot, but also the man and the woman were removed from the garden. They could no longer enjoy walking and talking with God face to face. Survival became hard work, and creation itself made life difficult. They no longer had access to the tree of life so death became a part of their existence.
John tells us that in the city, “No longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22: 3). The citizens “will see his face” once again (verse 4). The river, which gave life to the garden, now flows directly from God’s throne, for the benefit of everyone. The tree of life is there for all to enjoy again. The “twelve crops of fruit” which it produces each year bring abundant life, for ever, to the citizens, and its leaves bring healing from the curse resulting from all that went wrong in the garden.
This is a wonderful picture of God’s new heaven and earth, when the paradise of Eden and the beauty of all creation will be restored, and the relationship between God and humankind will be renewed, so that everything is once again the way God intended it to be. It is the fulfilment of what Paul said in Romans (8: 21-22): “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”.
That is truly something to look forward to. It also makes me think that I shall not have to live in a city after all!
Luke 21: 25-36 – Judgement.
Today is Advent Sunday – the start of the time when we think of Jesus’ coming into the world, firstly of course at Christmas as a baby, and secondly at the end of time as we presently know it.
At this time of year we all know Christmas is coming – it’s hard to miss. The first time Jesus came to this earth is an event that has already taken place, and in one way or another, much of the world knows about and remembers the day, even if it does not appreciate its significance.
But Jesus has promised that he will return – today’s reading says, “…At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v27). The date of this coming is completely unknown, but it is an event that will most certainly take place one day.
Near the start of chapter 21 you’ll see the heading ‘Signs of the end of the age’, but today I’d like to go back over nearly two chapters to put our reading into a rather wider context. We’re going to think about judgement rather than the end of the world, although of course the two are closely linked.
All this section of Luke’s gospel is set in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. This was one of the most splendid buildings of the ancient world, constructed of white marble and covered in gold, but its real importance was not so much as a magnificent piece of architecture as in the position it held at the centre of Israel’s belief system.
And the Temple had a deeper significance than being merely the symbol of Judaism – for the Jews it represented the place where God actually met with man, in its innermost room – the Holy of Holies.
Luke wrote for a non-Jewish audience, who might not really have appreciated this, but he also explained that God is encountered in many places besides the Temple in Jerusalem. As Paul said when he was in Athens, “God …is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17: 24).
In fact the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem came to an end with the coming of Jesus. The place where God is now encountered is within and among those who believe.
Each individual is God’s temple – each of us has our innermost place where we meet him. The ‘temple’ now stands for our relationship with God. It may not be a very good relationship but it is our faith, our way of life – the ‘me and God’ as it were in each of us.
So, to return to Luke – At the end of chapter 19 Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem – the place that represented the meeting place of God and man in the religion the Jews of Jesus’ day had inherited.
In view of what happened next, you could understand this visit in terms of an inspection by Jesus to see what the Jews had made of their special relationship with God.
His judgement was that things were far from perfect, and that much needed to change. He threw out the moneychangers and those selling animals, but this was only the very visible aspect of all the accumulation of tradition, and the distortion of belief, that needed to be looked at, and then cleared away.
Of course such an accumulation is not peculiar to the Temple in Jerusalem. We might all also find, as Jesus enters and looks round our own ‘temple’, that inner place where we each encounter God, that a good spring clean would be a good idea.
So, as we look briefly through Luke’s account of Jesus’ inspection and judgement of the faith of his day, let’s also see how the same principles might apply to us and to our faith.
The Jewish leaders demanded to know who gave Jesus the authority to suggest that anything needed to be changed in the way the Temple operated (20:2). Jesus told them the parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard who mistreated the servants that the owner sent, and finally killed the owner’s son.
The Jewish leaders understood immediately what the story meant, … “they knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them”, and they “looked for a way to arrest him” (20:19). They didn’t like to be challenged like this.
It’s a common attitude in which we all like to have the last word – ‘I can believe this; I will obey that; but the other thing I am just not prepared to accept’.
In other words we each like to decide for ourselves what we will believe and what we will reject, and that kind of pride could constitute a dangerous challenge to God’s authority.
The owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ story said, “What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him”. They didn’t – their self-interest came first, and we too must beware of allowing our beliefs to become ‘me-centred’ rather than God centred.
The next verses (20:19-26) exposed another problem at the Temple.
The Jews set a trap question for Jesus concerning whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They assumed that if you were loyal to your faith, then you could not be loyal to the state as well.
Jesus’ answer told them that they must find ways of including every part of life in their relationship with God. God was not to be confined to some parts of life and kept out of the rest. Proper belief in God spills over into every part of life, and enables each part to relate to every other.
Next the Jews asked Jesus a question about resurrection, quoting scripture to prove their point. Jesus quickly told them that their argument was simply wrong because they did not know what scripture really said.
How many times do people say, ‘The Bible says…’? Half-baked ideas of what the Bible says will not pass muster any more than ‘me-centred’ belief, or belief that operates only in some parts of life. Nor, as the next verses imply, will belief that has not been properly thought through (20:41-44), nor belief that is really all for outward show (20: 45-21: 4) be alright.
All these flaws in the way belief should be come under the inspection and judgement of Jesus – each needs to be ‘cleared out’ of the temple of our lives, just as Jesus cleared the Temple in Jerusalem. The moneychangers and those who sold animals there were symptomatic of many other wrong and misplaced attitudes and ideas that needed to be cleared out of the place where God was trying to meet mankind.
It soon became clear that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were not prepared to let their cherished way of faith and life be changed in any way, whatever Jesus said. From then on he and they were locked in a battle to the death.
When some of Jesus’ disciples commented on the beauty of the Temple building (21: 5) as they walked around the area, he told them… “The time will come when not one stone will be left on another” (20: 6). The Temple and all that it stood for would be destroyed, and indeed about forty years later in 70AD, the Romans fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.
But by then some more of Jesus’ words had come to pass. In the battle between the authorities and Jesus it appeared to begin with that the Jews had won when Jesus was crucified. But in John’s version of Jesus cleansing the Temple he had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2: 19, 21). The physical body of Jesus was raised, and with it his new body, the church, came into being.
There was then no further need of the old Temple as the place to meet with God – A dark room in an ancient building in one middle-eastern city was beginning to expand into the whole world, and to include many, many individuals, each being able to meet directly with God.
When Jesus returns all our beliefs and ideas about God and the world and life and ourselves will come under Jesus’ inspecting eyes. He will judge how worthy we are - whether our ways and our beliefs are fit “to stand before the Son of Man”, as the final verse of today’s reading puts it, or whether they will need to be swept away. We still have time to do our own inspection, and if necessary to carry out some spring-cleaning.