Looking back; looking forward.

Both Services on 27th November 2016
Christ Church, Stannington
Readings:      Isaiah 2:1-5
                      Matthew 24:36-44
Two Sundays ago, around this time, we were remembering those who’d given their lives in struggles that had been threatening the very existence of our country and that of other nations. We were also commemorating the end of one of these terrible conflicts. My own feeling is that, instead of giving two whole minutes per year of our “oh so precious” time to think of these dreadful occurrences, we should be giving two minutes every day. are two minutes of our daily grind too much to put aside to remember those who died, fighting so that we could spend those two minutes in a free country? I think such an affordable, simple, daily action would make it less likely that the appalling cost in lives and property would get pushed to the backs of our minds. Should that happen, it would allow us to blithely sleepwalk into the next conflict, having completely forgotten the terrifying consequences of the previous ones. It would be nice to think that was the end of that period in our history but of course we know differently.
We’re now engaged in a battle against a foe so evil, that their actions are an affront to our God. Jesus spoke about how we should react when assaulted by someone. He said that, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” (Luke 6:29 NIV). So we know how to behave if we are attacked personally. But what happened when Jesus found people using the temple courtyard as a marketplace? John’s description was detailed and said, “ In the temple courts [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”’ (John 2:14-16 NIV)
How does His reaction to this situation square with the earlier example of turning the other cheek? Well, what the people were doing in that courtyard was desecrating the temple and therefore they were insulting God. So, as Jesus demonstrated, this isn’t a “turning-the-other-cheek” situation. It’s obvious that turning the other cheek to these modern fanatics or even offering terms of surrender would do us no good at all. Nor would they ever surrender. I won’t get into the argument that we helped to cause this situation in the first place. How would that help anyone? These extremists just want to kill anyone who refuses to believe in their false god. Whether we like it or not we are involved in a war that must be won. Does it just seem like we’re in an ever-revolving door that continues to lead us into one war after another? It would be easy for us to feel like that. In fact sometimes it’s difficult not to believe that.
That’s why God gave us His Word, so that we can always see that there is hope at the end. What does He say about the future regarding wars? From our first reading this morning, we heard that God, “will settle disputes among great nations. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives. Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again.” (Vs 4).
“Nations will never again go to war.” Even though we know that something even better is in store for the followers of Jesus, isn’t the cessation of all conflicts a wondrous thing to think about, just in itself? Can we even imagine it? I’ll bet millions of people in the Middle East just now can’t imagine it. People throughout history have prayed for that day. So, when will it be, this most desirable event? As is often the case, God doesn’t say when that will be. There’s a reason that only He knows the answer to many things. I always think that if we knew all of God’s secrets, then we would act out of knowledge, not faith and faith is of course what He wants from us.
But whatever, wherever and however this wonderful change comes about, everyone in the whole world will sing and dance, if they can — won’t they? Sad to say, there will be those who will mourn the passing of the era of conflict and misery. Who will they be then these sorrowful people? Many people have built their fortunes and reputations on man’s discord with his fellows.
The obvious ones are the manufacturers and suppliers of all things military and, if you think about it, that includes everything from missiles to medals. Then of course there are the politicians. Get yourself into a good war and you’ll make the history books – not always in a good way. The same goes for the most senior military officers, whose promotion chances can be sluggish in times of peace. These days we see there have been opportunities grasped by a few lawyers to make their fortune by the litigation of our soldiers, only if they manage to make it back from a war zone.  This list could be almost endless but not many of us will be sad to see their golden goose to come to an end.
So, after the commemoration of the end of the Great War (great because of its all-encompassing nature, not something wonderful to remember) after celebrating that ending, we can now celebrate a new beginning. This Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, when we begin to think anew about the wonderful birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ and of His glorious return.
Was it by chance that God chose just that moment to bring into the world its Saviour? I’m sure we all understand that God never does anything by chance. In fact that moment was planned before the creation of the world, as was the place where it transpired. If we can’t read God’s mind, what we can do with our puny human brains is to try and figure out why God chose that particular time and place — 20/20 vision in hindsight is the academic’s claim to fame.
The time was right because, for a few hundred years, most of the known world had been under the rule of the Greeks so, just like English became the language known throughout the world, because of our own globe-encompassing empire, so the Greek language became known to a greater or lesser degree by all those who lived there then. If the Word was to be spread, it would have been difficult to do that without learning many languages and dialects. Another necessary tool for explaining religion was the Torah, or Jewish Bible, which has many references to Jesus. There were Jews living all over known world because, in the time of Greek domination, they were allowed to become known as citizens of wherever they were, with all the advantages that could bring them. So the Gospel could be taken to Jews living anywhere in the known world. Even better than that, the Greeks translated the Torah into Greek. That became known as the Septuagint, so-called because of the seventy translators who worked on it. Then, not only could the Good News be taken everywhere and explained to Jews using the Torah but also to non-Jews using the Septuagint. So, excellent timing by God! Then something only God knew about came to pass — the Greek Empire collapsed and it was eventually to be the turn of the Romans to hold dominion over the world.
This showed that not only was the time right, so was the place. It was right because another necessity for telling as many people about Jesus as possible, was the creation of links allowing travel between places. The Romans were great road builders and Jerusalem was a place that had many routes passing through it. In the Book of Ezekiel we read, “Son of man, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper,’ (Ezekiel 26:2 NIV).
The “Gate to the Nations!” What a great place from which to spread the Gospel. And so all was in ready for the most wonderful happening the world had ever experienced. God allowed His Son to come to earth, take human form and walk among us. Breathtaking!
Other perhaps more minor things also had to be in place. Most of these were to fulfil the prophesies made about Jesus in the Torah. This was necessary to give added weight to the arguments made by the gospel carriers proving who Jesus was. Here are a few:
 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). Immanuel means “God with us”. How much sense did that make to anyone listening to Isaiah 800 years before it happened? And yet, God really did come to earth and was “with us”.
 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out   of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old,  from ancient times” (Micah 5:2 NIV). Here’s another odd thing, neither Joseph nor Mary came from, or had ever lived in Bethlehem. So how on earth was the Son of God going to be born there? “It so happened” that a census had been called and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem “because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:4 NIV). Coincidence? I don’t think so.
God told Abraham that “through [His] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 22:18 NIV). The genealogy of Jesus is told in the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to him as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 NIV).
Here’s an even stranger one in that God foretold He would call His Son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1b). Well Herod himself set that one in motion by ordering that all the young boys under two years of age in the area of Bethlehem were to be slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). Before that could happen, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13 NIV).
Another prophecy foretold of that Slaughter of the Innocents. : “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15 NIV). One of the possible sites of what was known as Ramah was near Bethlehem.
There are so many prophesies about Jesus in the Old Testament that it’s difficult to believe they’d been foretold for any other reason than to prove to people — to those in our New Testament and to us just who Jesus was and is. They were used at length by the apostles. For instance we see that, “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and … he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2 NIV). Yes, used by preachers then and now. But are they there only to be used by of preachers? Of course not! If that were the case, how many copies of the Bible would you think have been sold worldwide? It may surprise you to know that The Bible is still the World’s Best Selling Book of All Time. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion. That puts Harry Potter at 4.5 million a bit in the shade. 
There’s one prophecy that for us is more important than all of these put together and we heard that in our Gospel Reading. It was verse 44 in which Jesus said, “So then, you also must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.”  I think that gives us a heads up to live our lives as if the coming of Jesus and the end of the world were imminent, as the posters often tell us. When people see the, usually not very well turned out, individuals carrying the signs saying “Repent, the end of the world is nigh”, they either ignore them or make fun of them. One day they might wish they’d heeded the warning.
How can we know what we should do in order to prepare for that day, which we hope for us will be truly wonderful? For a start we could get our noses into the world’s best-selling book. What help would we find there? Lots! Here are just three quotations (four if your count the last one as double):
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micha 6:8 NIV).
When an expert in the law tested Jesus by asking Him which was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIV). In Luke’s Gospel Jesus then went on to show that everyone was our neighbour by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
So there we have it. Just guiding passages from our Bible which, if we follow them, we’ll find the gates of heaven wide open for us when we get there. And we will all be judged on that day. It doesn’t matter how well we’ve looked after ourselves and our body. We should all keep in mind that perfect health is merely the slowest possible rate at which we can die. Preparation for that day should be more about others than ourselves.
To put the challenge into perspective, let’s imagine that a man or woman in the street was told that all they had to do was to follow just four instructions given them by the National Savings and Investments people in order to be certain of winning a Jackpot of £1 million would they do it? Could they do it? I think most people would go for it and give it all they’d got.
Jesus said, “ … the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45, 46 NIV) .Dwelling in the abode of Jesus; living in perfect peace; being surrounded by love and happiness; having no pain; no worries or crying; no tears of sorrow — for ever. Isn’t that worth a million times more than any jackpot or pearl?  Amen.