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Confident in the future?

How do you view the future? What are the prospects for human wellbeing and civilization going forward? After all the horrors of the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century the 1950’s and 60’s were times of greater optimism. There was immense technological and scientific development. Harold Wilson in a speech in Scarborough in 1963 captured the mood when he encouraged Britain to put away its old boy networks and be forged in the white heat of emerging technologies. In retrospect, there was much truth in what he said in those pre digital, pre internet days.
In the twenty first century, now that our lives benefit from many of the developments to which Wilson alluded, do we still share the same sense of confidence in the future that characterised his era? Today the threats to life on our planet are perhaps greater than ever before. Climate change is clearly affecting some communities putting them at risk. Plastic, which was once seen as the wonder product of the sixties now threatens to choke and overwhelm us causing untold damage to seas and rivers. Population growth and migration are at record levels placing huge strain on the resources of the planet. The threat of nuclear war, weapons of mass destruction, relieved somewhat at the toppling of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago is now raising its head again given the present occupants of the Kremlin and the White House.
So, should we fear extinction? Should we join the rebellion? The message of Jesus in our gospel passage for today (Luke 21.5-19) is to hold our heads while everyone else is losing theirs. ‘do not be frightened.’ (verse 9) Why is Jesus so confident; not giving in to panic even though he knows that his own crucifixion in pending? He knows that God has a plan, a strategy. The bible unveils that strategy in so far as it needs to be known. It’s not a graph or a chart or an excel spreadsheet! Not everything is laid out for us but there is enough…on a ‘need to know basis’
The plan starts with creation; a good and perfect world with human beings given choices just like God. It allows for them to make wrong choices, to fall into sin, to wreck the special relationship they enjoyed with God. God remains faithful to humanity. He calls firstly Abraham. His whole family then become a nation invited into a covenant relationship with God. Through this people and the promises, he makes with them God looks to call the world to himself but this people; Israel still mess up and God repairs the relationship many times. At the centre of time, he enters the world as a human being in Jesus as he said he would. In himself on the cross he bears the penalty that in righteous judgement, he had imposed on sin instituting a new covenant. All this was proved and vindicated in the resurrection and the Holy Spirit ensures that those set free from sin in Jesus can live in relationship with him.
That is in the past. What of the future? God has set a day: ‘The Day of the Lord’. This is the repeated message of many of the old testament prophets, not least Malachi from whom we have heard this morning. ‘Surely, the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.’ (Malachi 4.1) Jesus was very aware of the teachings of the prophets like Malachi. He understood that his ministry was part of God’s plan. It was important for him to stress that his part in the plan came before the ‘Day of the Lord’. As he walks with his disciples through the temple courts, they remark on the beautiful stonework, not easy to put in place without modern machinery. Jesus retorts that they will all be thrown down…and they would be when the Romans laid siege Jerusalem just 40 years later.
Such a catastrophic event destroying the sacred temple of God would surely mean that the day of the Lord had come. But Jesus says not yet. They will be a sign of what is to take place. Jesus goes on to describe many things with which we are familiar; earthquakes, wars famine, the breakdown of society. He speaks too of strange things happening to the sun, moon and stars, things that we have not experienced but spoken of by the old prophets in talking about the day of the Lord and echoed by John in the revelation at the end of the bible. In other words, says Jesus, there is much that must take place before the end, the day comes.
Jesus quite clearly teaches that after his ministry comes the Day of the Lord; the end, a time of judgement. Along with the prophets, he teaches this as part of God’s plan. He does make clear that there is considerable time in the plan between his work and the Day. The timing of day is not disclosed. Imagine if it was. We would keep wanting extensions…like Brexit! As Jesus is recorded as saying by Matthew: ‘No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the father. (Matthew 24.36) Therefore, Jesus urges his disciples, his followers, all Christians to keep watch.
You see, our generation too are all part of God’s plan. We are part of the time of grace when we benefit from the work of God in Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As Paul has it in his letter to the Romans, we are without excuse (Romans 1.20) Many people are full of anxiety about the future, about climate change, the threats of war and instability and diminishing resources. The bible, our Christian faith, teaches us to trust, to have faith, to accept the immense offer of forgiveness in Christ and to live as watchful people.
What might this mean for us. Two things emerge from our lessons today. Firstly, this is no time to idle.
In the new testament reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warns his readers that if someone will not work, they should not eat. ( 2 Thessalonians 3.10) What appears to have happened is that the new Thessalonian Christians were so caught up with the idea that they were living in the last times and that the Day of the Lord was just around the corner that they had given up doing any work to earn there own keep, possibly just living on handouts from the church, a kind of first century food bank! Paul makes it clear this is no way to be going on. Not working meant they were becoming busybodies. As we might say, the devil always finds something for idle hands to do. In contrast, Paul and his friends had worked to earn their keep not taking from the new converts. They expected them to do the same. Living in these times; watching for the Day of the Lord is not an excuse to coast. ‘Never tire of doing what is right’ as Paul says at the end of our reading (2 Thessalonians 3.13)
Secondly, this is the time to witness. Jesus could not make it clearer. He says that his followers will be in synagogues, prisons and before authorities but: ‘This will result in your being witnesses to them. (Luke 21.13) He goes on to say that words will be given to them through the Holy Spirit as an when necessary. The disciples who heard Jesus say that would find it all coming true as they took the gospel message out from Judea into the Roman Empire. We inhabit that same chunk of time in God’s plan. Our witness to the resurrection of Christ and his presence in our life needs urgently to be heard by emerging generations. Yes, there may be things we want to say about climate change and plastic waste reduction which are important, but Jesus calls his disciples above all to witness to him as we work watch and wait for the Day knowing that we are caught up in the plans of God, our heavenly father. For those who panic and worry about the future, the message of Jesus and the gospel of the Lord can bring perfect peace and fulfilment. Our witness to these truths has never been more necessary.

Kingdom 3 17.11.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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