Sermon preached at Saint Margaret, Westhorpe,
Sunday 8th August, 2010
May I take you on a journey? Try and imagine, for a moment, that you have been transported to London, to the top of the steps outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a half a century ago. It was a relatively mild, winter afternoon, Tuesday, the 28th of February, 1956. It was the day of the enthronement of a new Bishop of London. The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Henry Colville Montgomery Campbell, KCVO, PC, MC, MA, was a tall, imposing man. He stood outside the great west doors of that iconic building, resplendent in his episcopal robes, and holding his crozier. The great and the good of the diocese and the city stood all around him as he prepared to take temporal and spiritual possession of his cathedral. The clock struck the hour of three: the solemn moment had arrived. In keeping with ancient tradition, the bishop stepped forward to demand admittance. He crashed the staff of his crozier three times on the door and stepped back. Nothing happened. He tried again, banging harder, using more force. Again, not a sound could be heard from within. The Bishop stepped back once more. He looked up at the magnificent façade of the cathedral, to the top of its golden cross, 365 feet above the pavement. He turned around and surveyed the assembled company of mayors, councillors, chancellors, policemen and servicemen, and said to his chaplain, ‘Do you think we’ve come to the right place?’ I tell you this true story because Jan and I have no doubts that are in the right place this morning. As some of you will know, our family were members of the congregation of Saint Margaret’s when we lived in the village, in the 1970s. I was for a time a churchwarden, with the late and much loved Ella Barker, and together we fought off a number of attempts by the ecclesiastical authorities to shut this church. Its closure was demanded principally because of the small numbers who attended its services. When we moved to Lancashire in 1978 the departure of our family of five halved the regular congregation. So, it is such a delight to see that your church still stands witness to the worship of God in this place. It looks in remarkably good shape and its attendance seems to have improved, if only a little! Jan and I are back in Suffolk to celebrate our Ruby Wedding Anniversary.
In 1976 I was given a probationary Lay Reader’s licence. I did offer Evensong on a few Sunday afternoons, here in this church, in the days of Father Leslie Miles, but, although my licence did give me authority to preach, ‘after six months, and not more than once a month’, I never got to climb into this pulpit because dear Leonard Elsey, from Finningham, who in those days played the organ for us, always gave the sermon. After leaving Suffolk my time was otherwise occupied and I had no opportunity to continue with my studies until we retired to Scotland. After a couple of years I enrolled as a distance-learning student at the University of Aberdeen and last July I was awarded a degree by that university. In acknowledgement of that achievement our bishop, Martin Shaw, who some of you may know because he was previously Sub-Dean and Precentor at Saint Edmundsbury Cathedral, licensed me as a Lay Reader. So concluded what may have been the longest probationary readership in the history of the church, some thirty-three years! I wonder if I should contact the Guinness Book of Records! May I say how wonderful it is to be back in this beautiful and ancient church. What a great honour it is to stand at last in this pulpit. Thank you, Ian, for allowing me this singular privilege.
And so, to my sermon. We find references to eschatology in our readings this morning. Now, don’t be too alarmed by that complicated word. It’s one that theologians use when talking about the last things, the Apocalypse, the end of the world, the conclusion of space and time. It’s a concept I want to explore with you for just a few minutes this morning. There were many in first century Palestine who thought that Jesus just might be the long awaited Messiah. However, they were uncertain because he didn’t behave as they thought a Messiah should. Surely the Messiah would come like a latter-day King David and return their small, impoverished and subjugated nation to its former glory. Surely he would live in a royal citadel and lead a powerful army. Surely he would use that army to conquer the hated Roman overlords, and drive them for ever from their land. Yet Jesus did none of these things. Those who did not know of his birth in David’s city of Bethlehem thought that he originated in Nazareth, in Galilee, away in the less cultured north, and, as Nathanael said, in Saint John’s Gospel, ‘what good thing can come out of Nazareth?’ Jesus certainly didn’t live in a royal palace or a grand castle. He didn’t lead an army. He wasn’t surrounded by courtiers and servants. Indeed, as he once remarked, ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. When questioned by some devious Pharisees about his attitude to the occupying power, albeit they were trying to get him to condemn himself for treason, Jesus told them to give to Caesar all that belonged to Caesar. If a Roman soldier demands that you carry his baggage for a mile, go with him a second mile, he told them. No, Jesus was definitely not cast in the expected militaristic mould of King David. But, he didn’t come to build an earthly kingdom. He didn’t even come to restore the Jewish nation. Why, then, did he come? He came to initiate a Kingdom of God on earth. To put it simply, Jesus came to make a new covenant with God’s chosen people.
As we know, God had made many covenants with his people – you will remember those with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham and with Moses. We heard a reference to that made with Abraham in our Old Testament reading. Abraham’s wife Sarah had not yet given him a son. She was called ‘barren’, a description that applied to many of the women we meet in the Bible. Having a son to inherit ones name and tribe was of critical importance in those ancient times. Thus far Abraham, who still had his earlier name of Abram, only had a child by his wife’s slave-woman, Hagar. However, God told Abraham to look up into the heavens and count the stars. His descendants would, God said, be equally numerous. Abraham was led to believe that, at the end of time, at the eschaton, his descendants would populate the whole earth, as grains of sand cover the sea shore; after all, God had told him that it would be so. As you probably know, Abraham’s first child, born to Hagar, was Ishmael and his descendents, it is claimed, became the founders of Islam; a religion that today has about one and a half billion members. By comparison, the Jewish people, who are Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac, the son who was eventually born to Sarah, comprise fewer than twenty million. But, Christianity superseded Judaism and there are in excess of two billion Christians. Abraham, through these two sons, can therefore be held responsible for the monotheistic faiths of more than half the population of the planet – no mean achievement for a wandering Chaldean who put his simple trust in God.
By the time of Jesus the Jews were few in number, insignificant, and scattered, in the Diaspora, across the known world. Simple readings of the gospels tell us of the poverty and depravation that affected the lives of those who remained in Palestine. We only have to observe the large numbers of hungry, diseased, deprived and disadvantaged people who followed Jesus everywhere he went to understand their desires for improvements in their lives and their deep yearnings for a return of the glories of the past. This was, then, a time of high expectation for the coming of the Messiah; the Messiah promised for the best part of a thousand years by seer, sage and prophet. But, as we have seen, this was not to be a military Messiahship; not another King David; not a leader of a revitalised Palestinian army to defeat the Romans. Instead, it was to be a different sort of kingdom, a kingdom not of this world. As Jesus said to Pilate during his trial before the Procurator, ‘My kingdom is not from this world … my kingdom is not from here.’
As we heard in our Gospel proclamation, Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. Jesus told his listeners that they must be prepared for the coming of that kingdom. Now, there is some confusion in the gospels about the timing of this arrival, this eschatological event, this end-of-time happening, this Apocalyptic phenomenon. That the Son of God would return in glory to judge the world in righteousness was not disputed. The main question was, ‘When would it happen?’ At times Jesus himself appears to have been of the opinion that he would return in glory, to usher in the new and final age, soon after his resurrection and ascension. The disciples who witnessed that ascension were told, ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ I’m sure they thought that this would happen in the days and weeks that followed. In the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, Saint John reports that Christ, the Lamb, the Alpha and Omega, says, ‘See, I am coming soon,’ (he says this twice in five verses) and, ‘for the time is near’. In his early writings, Saint Paul showed his conviction that the Second Coming, the Parousia, was imminent. Paul was eager to evangelise the whole world and convert all to the Christian faith before the end-of-time. In the eighteenth century that illustrious scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, spent many fruitless hours strenuously searching for the exact date of the end-of-time by ransacking the Book of Revelation for encrypted clues. In more recent years some overtly pious groups, using rather spurious theology, have calculated precise dates for this happening. Members gave away their possessions and waited on the tops of remote mountains to be the first to board the Eschatological Express; to be the first to enter the new kingdom. As we know, their preparations all came to nought and life went on. Elsewhere in scripture we are told that the timing of this event cannot be accurately established, not even, it seems, by the Son of God. Saint Matthew tells us that Jesus, on another occasion, said, ‘But about that hour and day no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. In similar vein, as we heard, Saint Luke quoted Jesus, using a parable, ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into’. So the Jews were told to be ready. Our reading concluded with the words, ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.
What does all this eschatology mean for us, worshippers here in Westhorpe, on a summer morning in the early years of the twenty-first century? The imminence and importance of the Parousia, the Second Coming, seem to have faded very much into the background of our collective, religious consciousness. After all, nearly two thousand years have passed since this Second Advent was predicted. It would be easy for us to become blasé, and to say to ourselves, ‘it hasn’t happened yet; perhaps it never will’. That would be very wrong. Our ancestors in the Christian faith have constantly waited in prayerful patience for that Second Coming. They have always followed Our Lord’s instruction, ‘You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ This ‘hour’ may not come this morning, or this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. However, we have Our Lord’s promise that it will come. In the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Saint Paul wrote a great paean of praise to love. We mustn’t forget that the other two Christian virtues that he wrote about were faith and hope. Just as Abraham had trust in God that God would honour his covenant, so we have to have faith that Christ’s eschatological promise of a kingdom of God will be fulfilled, and a hope that we shall be beneficiaries of that assurance. Those of you who can remember the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 will recollect some words from the concluding Thanksgiving Prayer; words that I think have come down through the centuries to some of your current orders of service; words that say, ‘we are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom’. So, my final words to you this morning must be those of Our Saviour, ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’