This is based on a sermon preached on Advent Sunday 2013 based on readings from Genesis (1:1-5), Isaiah (2:1-5), Matthew (24:36-44) and Romans (13-11-14). Try an Australian paraphrase of the lectionary readings if you want.
Looking beyond Christmas
With candle lighting ceremony and lectionary reading this week we’ve had more Bible readings than we’d normally have. These have taken us an immense journey across all of time from the Creation myths in Genesis to three different visions of the final state of our planet, one from Isaiah, one from Paul and one from Matthew. We normally see Advent as a preparation for Christmas but this morning’s readings put this in a wider context. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Messiah who will lead us into God’s Kingdom. In preparing for the minutiae of Christmas we must be carefully that we don’t lose track of the bigger picture of preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom.
Imminent cataclysm or long term vision for human progress?
It’s worth maybe pausing to think about what we consider God’s Kingdom to be. The New Testament readings present this as an imminent event many, including Paul, believing that it would occur within their lifetimes. They clearly got this wrong, there is no sign of that event 2,000 years later.
They also believed in some sort of cataclysmic god-driven upheaval in which God would make all things new. I’m not sure we have to take this literally either. The early Christians living in pre-scientific communities didn’t really have anything to rely on for predicting the future but their own imaginations. Through modern science we have a range of tools for predicting the future and I suspect that most modern Christians see these as more reliable. The prediction of contemporary physics is that the earth will continue to rotate around the sun getting very gradually closer as the sun gradually expands until one day it will consume the earth. In some ways this is an exceptionally bleak picture but the important thing is that that is an unbelievably slow process. For the best part of the next billion years the earth is going to be substantially as it is at the moment. For all practical human considerations the earth as a planet is going to exist pretty much as it does today for ever.
If there is to be a coming of God’s Kingdom, and it might be worth saying at this point that this is something I do very much believe in, then it is going come about by a re-structuring of society. If you strip away the clearly mythical and poetic embellishments of any of the biblical descriptions of the coming of God’s Kingdom then this is what you are left with. Isaiah’s poetry probably gives a clearer impression of this than much of the later more apocalyptic writing but I re-iterate that this vision of a re-structuring of society is at the heart of all those visions:
The LORD will settle all disputes between nations,
……..and sort out their competing claims.
They will turn weapons into welcome signs
……..and bombs into tools and toys.
Never again will nations take up arms against one another;
……..never again will young people be trained for war.
The traditional view is that God is going to bring this about through divine intervention whether we (as the human race) like it or not but, again, I think this is an unreasonable adoption of a pre-scientific view point. I suspect that this is a vision that we have been given by God’s prophets but are going to have to work for ourselves if we ever want to see it come. We are the agents of God’s change. If we want to bring about his Kingdom then we are going to have to achieve it. We’ve been inspired by God and we’ll be empowered by his Spirit. It will be His Kingdom – but it is us, his servants, who are charged with bringing it about.
How does that relate to our present experience?
One of the problems with this sort of theology is that the prospects for the evolution of God’s Kingdom as a product of human development seem so poor. Looking at the depressing state of the world today it looks almost impossible to believe that we are progressing towards God’s Kingdom. I can see why one sector of the church just wants to give up on this and assume that if we just wait long enough God will intervene for us and put all things right – but I suspect it’s going to be a long wait.
To a certain extent this has always been the case but until very recently there has been a general feeling that humanity if progressing. Prosperity has certainly increased, quality of life has been continuously improving and, in the developed world at least, we have escaped the tyranny of warfare as a way of resolving international disputes. Against this background a general belief that human progress is leading towards some positive outcome has seemed quite rational.
But things are changing and it becomes more and more difficult to see God’s Kingdom as an inevitable end-point. For the first time in human history, it appears that our children and grand-children are going to be less well off than we are. We are living through a period of austerity, which the politicians try to sell as temporary, but which is deeply rooted in severe economic problems, principally the unbelievable levels of personal and national debt that are not going to go away quickly, if ever. The old mechanism was to lose debt in sustained economic growth but it is becoming more obvious that economic growth cannot be sustained for ever on a finite planet. We will simply run out of resources.
We are exposed to pressures from international labour markets which are cheaper than ours and as international education levels increase we will no longer be protected by our previous advantages in the knowledge economy. As affluence increases in other parts of the world we will find competition for food and other products that we have always had the freedom to buy (or steal) in the past. It seems unlikely to me that things are going to get better before they get a lot worse (at least for us in the developed world who have had a privileged status for so long). From this perspective it is easy to hanker after the halcyon days that Isaiah was speaking from.
Except that the world that Isaiah was speaking from was no more positive than the world we live in today. Isaiah lived between 800 and 700BCE at a time when Assyria was the emerging power. Israel lived in fear of invasion. These fears were quite rational, it was invaded three times over this period. Being invaded by a world super-power was not a pleasant prospect in those days. Men would have been killed, women raped and children pressed into slavery. Isaiah was not writing from a comfortable world.
The optimistic view of God’s kingdom he proclaimed has been extracted from its context. If you read the passages on either side you’ll see that Isaiah had just as depressing view of the world around him as many of us have today. Not only was he depressed at what he saw but he blamed Israel for letting things get this way. This glorious vision of God’s Kingdom is embedded in rant about how miserable the human world is.
Confidence through bleakness.
I think there is a sense in this of where Isaiah’s confidence in the inevitability of God’s Kingdom is coming from. He understands that the current situation cannot lead to prosperity and peace. Radical change is required. This could come through humanity changing and adopting a different way, God’s way. Failing this it will come through a failure of the socioeconomic order and people learning through the consequent pain and anguish. (In many ways similar to the experience of two world wars resulting in peace and stability in Europe) .
I feel very much the same about the current world. It seems obvious to me that the current way we do things cannot succeed. A world in which competition reigns, in which we exploit the environment and in which we feel free to exploit others cannot succeed. It is destined to fail. The only way that the human race will ever to be able to live in peace and prosperity is if we cooperate. If we respect and love each other. If we recognise that the path to satisfaction is to be thankful for what we have rather than greedy for what we lack. I have absolutely no doubt that the end-point of human development will be a society in which we recognise the truth of God’s message because any other society is going to fail.
Of course this isn’t a short-term view. Where the early church saw the coming of God’s Kingdom as imminent I tend to the opposite viewpoint that the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom still lies an immeasurably far distance in the future – far beyond any timescale that I am likely to see. It is quite possible that the world is going to have to pass through a period of climate catastrophe and terrible wars over food and other resources. Nowhere in the Bible are we promised a peaceful transition to God’s Kingdom and it seems unlikely to me that we are going to get it. But don’t let that blind us to the inevitability of God’s Kingdom emerging eventually.
So what is our role within this vision. Paul might have got his timescales wrong but I believe he got his theology right:
let’s make sure that we get rid of any old ways of living that belong to the darkness of our past. Let us live our lives in such a way that we’ll be able to hold our heads high when the broad light of day shows up everything for what it really is.
Our role is to try and live in this world now as if we were already living in God’s Kingdom. This is incredibly difficult. How do we share our resources equitably with all of God’s people in world economic system driven by the desire to accumulate personal wealth? How do we love other people in a system based on competition and exploitation? How do we preserve the gift of our planet in system that assumes continued economic growth?
This is a huge challenge. I’ve just been reading Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan’s book on the first Christmas and they point out that early Christianity was a counter-cultural movement. It realised that it wasn’t possible to live out God’s calling within society as it was then structured and proposed a different way of living. This is why it was dangerous, this is why it was persecuted. This is why it was important. This is what we have lost. When was the last time that the Church was perceived as a serious threat to society? Most of us have been so fully indoctrinated with society’s values that we don’t even recognise the radical nature of Isaiah’s vision when it is read out to us.
There can be no better metaphor for this than our preparations for Christmas. Think about your plans for Christmas. Think about how many of those preparations are essentially reinforcing our current culture. How much money are we going to lavish on ourselves at a time when many in our own culture, let alone throughout the world, are in such desperate need? How much food are we going to be bloated with at a time when so many people in the world starve? How many of us celebrate with close family behind locked doors when God’s vision is of a banquet that we share with all people?
At the start of Advent, as we start to prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us remind ourselves of the wider challenge to prepare for God’s Kingdom. Let’s try to use this next four weeks to imagine a world as Isaiah first imagined it. Let us keep that vision of God’s mountain at the forefront of our thinking:
Come, let’s go and climb the LORD’s mountain;
…………….let us worship in the temple of the God of Jacob.
……..There the LORD will teach us how to live right
…………….so that we can get our lives on track.”