Dec 6, 2014
No podcast for this, just the full text of the sermon.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 quoting Isaiah 22:13 and perhaps also Ecclesiastes says “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” Now Paul does not approve of this philosophy any more than the Book of Isaiah. The full quotation from 1 Corinthians is “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”(1 Corinthians 15:32, NRSV)
The point that Paul is making is that if there is no resurrection there is no future then we might as well do what we like with our lives. For soon enough we will be dead and if there is no life beyond death it does not matter what happens after we are gone. We will have no consciousness of it. We will know and feel nothing, we will not simply sleep, we will be no more. There will never be another me, another us. If this is true we may as well enjoy life and do what we want. Indeed even our children do not matter if there is no life beyond this life, for we will know and feel nothing about them. For if there is no life beyond this life, if there is no eternal hope, then when we die, the universe dies with us. We may as well, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Perhaps it would be good for us to be kind enough to others so they will be kind to us. After all if we have good company we can eat and be merry and drink all the more. It feels good to love and to like and to be liked and to love, but really we do this for ourselves so that we can live the satisfied life. And let there be no nonsense about “living on in our children” or our ideas surviving us, or the world being a better place for us having been here. That may well be true, but if there is no resurrection, if there is no eternity, if there is no life beyond this life then after our death we will know and experience and feel nothing of it.
This is the second Sunday in Advent. The purpose of this time of year is not a run up or a count down to Christmas. Traditionally it is instead that time of year when we think about the return of Jesus at the end of time, bringing the New Heaven and the New Earth. It is that time of year when we look forward to a time when every tear will be wiped away, when death and sin and suffering will finally be defeated. It is that time of year when we look into eternity, and the hope of new life and the hope of being reunited with those who have long since or have even recently gone. Perhaps above all else if there is an eternity then we should ask ourselves, “How then should we live now?” If our story is part of an eternal story and what we do now has an eternal impact then “What could we be doing? What have we done? What will be the impact of our lives?”
Our three readings today are different ways of looking at this issue. Behind them all is a firm belief that our life is eternal. There is a future and at the end of time all will be renewed. There is a heaven and a new heaven and there is to be a new earth.
From Mark chapter 1:1-8 we hear the call to repent. We see a man dressed in strange clothes with a strange diet. We know of him that his call to people to repent, to live the a good and upright life, angered the religious authorities. It also angered King Herod’s family, so much so that they threw him in jail and eventually chopped off his head. This is not a picture of a man who believed that this life is all there is. If this life was all there was why would he put himself through all of that. No, John believed in a God who was eternal, a God who was just, and a God who was sending another greater than him. This one who was to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. He would bring in the Kingdom of God. A way, a highway for God to travel on was to be prepared God would come to judge but also to bring justice and goodness to all the world.
If this is about to happen, if this promised one is coming, how then should we respond - Repent says John, turn back to God, live lives which are oriented to eternity. Live lives which reflect the goodness and the coming justice and glory of God.
We hear exactly the same kind of message in the passage we heard from 2 Peter Chapter 3 verses 8-15. God is out there and God is with us and God is coming and God who is eternal for whom a thousand years are but a day, desires that all should repent, all should turn to him for a new heaven and a new earth is coming. The first Christian believers felt they had met his new heaven and earth made flesh in Jesus. He was the promise of all things being made good and right, of God coming as Judge to sift the wheat from the chaff, and also as restorer and champion to make all things new.
The picture in second Peter is a bit like that of a smelter. The old heaven and earth like rough ore and scrap metal will be melted in the furnace, the flux and dross will be cast aside but something new and shiny and imperishable will emerge, a new heaven and a new earth. Again the question has to be asked, if this is true, how should we live? If God is coming, and if in some sense through the word of the prophets and in the teaching and person of Jesus, and the pouring out of the Spirit the God has come and in time shall return to finish off the job, how then should we live? How should we behave, how should we orient our lives?
So we move onto our third reading. Up until now the context has been on sin and repentance. Peter and John the Baptist urge us to stop living for the now and for ourselves and live with the future judgement in mind. In Isaiah 40 the tone shifts to grace and hope and comfort. A people exiled in Babylon, their city, Jerusalem, the city of God, the city of promise has been destroyed. Comfort Isaiah cries, your term has been served your sins are forgiven, build a highway for God is coming among you. God in all glory and power will come among you and all the world will see it. And God will come not to condemn. Do not fear for God “...will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40:11, NRSV)
He will come like Jesus the good shepherd of John 10 or like the shepherd of the 23rd psalm. When we read John the Baptist quoting these words, in Mark 1 we tend to think his vision of God is as a severe judge. But John would have known the context of these words, he knows that they are words of comfort. Judgement can be about condemnation, but it can also be a judge ordering that property be restored, that compensation be paid and that you have no case to answer. Isaiah spoke to people homeless and in exile saying God will bring a future, a restoration and will lead you to the green pastures, the banqueting table and the still waters. John quotes these words to people occupied by the hated Romans, trying to carry the burden of the Law. Repent not only for fear of the judgement but because there is a future, justice, comfort and forgiveness are coming. “The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
Sometimes those who deride Christianity and even any religion which has an eternal hope make fun of things like the second coming, judgement day, the new heaven and the new earth. In their minds they lead we who have faith to look to “pie in the sky when we die” and make us of no earthly use, but I think the opposite is probably true. Without this future hope of restoration, there is no point in caring for the needy or looking to the future of the planet or preserving history or art or culture for they have no eternal value and they die with the death of every individual, and the eventual demise of our species.
By contrast let me conclude by giving one example of someone who was inspired by this future hope and who quoted this very passage in Isaiah in bringing this vision of hope to others. Martin Luther King was a black Southern Baptist minister and the great shining light of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He had a vision or a dream of what the future could be. Without that vision of eternity, as a black middle class minister and gifted preacher he could have had a comfortable and happy life, adored and handsomely supported by his congregation. Yet instead he risked death and violence and confrontation and hatred because of the vision of eternity, of recreation and reconciliation that drove him. He did not in his lifetime see these things come to pass but it did not matter for he had a vision of the future a vision of eternity.
Listen to his word’s :
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists...; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
If this vision is true how then should we live? (Repeat)