Sermon preached by Revd Mark Newitt on 28 Oct 2017

Matthew 24 v30-35

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, a graphic that appeared on the first cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as it transitioned from a six-page, black-and-white newsletter to a full-fledged magazine. For its first cover, the editors sought an image that represented a seriousness of purpose and an urgent call for action. The Clock, and the countdown to midnight that it implied, fitted the bill perfectly. The idea behind the clock is that it warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet. Each time the clock is changed, or not, is meant to galvanise a global debate about whether the planet is safer or more dangerous than it was the previous year or at key moments in recent history.

In one of my sermons a couple of years ago, reflecting on Jesus’s parousia (a greek word that means presence, arrival, or official visit, and in theology usually relates to the idea of Jesus’s return in glory) I mentioned that in 2015 the clock had been updated from 5 minutes to midnight and was currently running at three minutes to midnight. After a couple of years at 3 minutes, this year the clock was moved to two and a half minutes to midnight; the closest it has been to midnight since 1953; the year after the USA tested its first thermonuclear bomb obliterating a small Pacific Ocean island in the process, followed six months later by the USSR testing theirs.

I’ve no idea of what the Science and Security Board, who met twice a year to discuss world events and reset the clock as necessary, might make of Brexit or the developing Catalan crisis, but given the ratcheting of tensions in the Korean Peninsula and Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement, I can’t see the clock being moved back any time soon.

Now, one way of continuing this sermon, similar to how I proceed two years ago, would be to explore further the notion of Jesus’s parousia in relation to the potential destruction of the world and to ask questions about whether we might best understanding texts, such as those that climax in our gospel reading today, as eschatological or apocalyptic – but I’ll perhaps leave that for Sarah who is preaching on the first Sunday of Advent when the reading includes the gospel of Mark’s version of these texts; advent being derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming,’ which is is itself a translation of the Greek word parousia.

Instead, I want to think a little about who it is that these texts say is coming.

Our Gospel reading began:

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven…”

The title ‘Son of Man’ is perhaps best know from it’s multiple appearances in Ezekiel where it is a possible translation of the Hebrew ben Adam. (The KJV, NIV and RSV (this is bible Sunday after all) goes with ‘Son of Man’; the Good News bible with ‘mortal man’; the Street Bible, perhaps picking up some of the derogatory tone of the title ‘mortal boy’; the Revised English Bible ‘o man’; and the New Revised Standard Version simple ‘mortal’.) Primarily it appears as God’s way of addressing the prophet when delivering significant visions (such as the ‘dry bones’ vision in Ezekiel chapter 37). It’s significance in our Gospel reading today – and in the gospels generally – most likely comes from it’s use in Daniel chapter seven verse thirteen which tells of the appearance in a vision of a human one, a kebar enash in the Aramaic, of which this part of the text of Daniel is written, a human one who is contrasted with the four beasts that have preceded it:

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)

Here ‘Son of Man’ has a representative connotation. The beasts represent oppressive human orders; kingdoms or empires that arise. In contrast, the Son of Man represents how human beings are truly meant to live, a kingdom according to the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One who gives him dominion and glory and kingship. In some ways Daniel chapter seven might be the quintessential biblical vision of oppressive human reigns giving way to a truly human way to reign.

In First Century Palestine the Book of Daniel held a place among Jews that can be compared to the place of the Book of Revelation today for certain Christians — even, perhaps, the troubling aspects of often misinterpreting it as a triumphalistic hope in a divine violence to conquer one’s enemies. Beyond that it did, though, epitomise their hope of a reign of peace. Increasingly, scholars are coming to see that this fits well with Jesus’s basic message of the coming of the kingdom of God. In designating himself as the ‘Son of Man,’ Jesus was expressing confidence that he represented the coming of God’s way to reign in the world, a way that is truly human, a way that God the Creator designed for us from the beginning.

In his book The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man which explores the phrase, Walter Wink writes:

And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN… It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.[1]

Having said that the Son of Man – or a human one – will appear, Jesus continues:

But from the fig tree learn the parable: when its branch becomes full and the leave grow you know that the summer is near. Thus also: when you see all these things you know that it is at the door.

In Palestine the fig tree is the best known of the deciduous trees. It receives  its leaves relatively late in April so once it starts sprouting, a return to winter weather is no-longer expected. (The parable makes more sense when you know that in biblical Hebrew there is no word for spring and, in that time, one spoke of two seasons, summer and winter.)

But what does ‘when you see all these things’ and what or who might be standing ‘before the door’ as a more literal translation puts it. Given what has come before we might think of Jesus’s parousia, his second coming; this is what the translation in our gospel reading would seen to suppose when translates the Greek as ‘when you see these things you know that he is near.’ However, most exegetes, suggest that the parable originally referred to the Kingdom of God that was dawning; seen in the signs of Jesus’s own ministry. Another way of putting it would be, “In the same way,” Jesus said, “when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”

Whether in terms of international or national politics or simply in relation to our own personal lives, when the doomsday clock seems to be ever ticking closer to midnight, the Kingdom of God can seem far away. The passage leading up to our gospel today is full of wars and rumours of wars, nation rising up against nation, famines and earthquakes (all of which you’ll be pleased to know are just the beginning). They will be followed by tribulation, the abomination of desolation, the darkening of the sun and the moon and the stars falling from heaven.

It is in the light (or perhaps shadow) of this that we are encouraged to focus on the signs of summer, to look for the good things happening in the world and contribute to them. God’s kingdom is that place wherein full-humanness gets lived-out. This is the place where full-humanness is not just glimpsed but finds expression in the political, economic, environmental and social way that humans live together. If we watch for where life is happening, where cells are vital and green, where people have hope and care for one another, where laughter and smiles can be seen even when in the midst of challenge and distress; well then we can see for ourselves that summer, or the kingdom, is near.

And it is in the opposing of the politics of hate, in the clothing of ourselves, and perhaps one another, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, in the bearing with one another, forgiving each other, in the seeking after justice and sending portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, in letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and, above all, in   the living out of love that we will reveal the kingdom and in doing so become more Christlike and more human.   Amen

[1] Walter Wink, The Human Being p26

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