A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
November 27th 2022
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of X pounds.’ That’s what it proclaims on our banknotes. Were people to start doubting that promise, the whole economy would crash to the ground, taking our society with it. We’re depending on the Bank of England to keep its promises.
The bank’s promise is precise: present the note and they will pay out. Prior to 1931 they would have paid in gold, but now they will pay you in … other bank notes. Still, a promise is a promise.
Today we have two Bible readings that contain promises, but rather fuzzy ones. ‘In days to come,’ promises the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (or is that a promise from God who has given the prophet the message to pass on?); ‘in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains … many peoples shall come [to it … and God] shall judge between nations … [and] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares … nation shall not lift sword against nation.’ (2:1, 2, 3)
‘About that day and hour,’ says Jesus in Matthew 24, ‘no one knows.’ (24:36) Though it sounds like a frightening time, like a flood about to happen (14:37-39); situations where one person stays and another disappears (24:40-41); where your house gets broken into in the dead of night. (24:43) In neither reading is it clear when God will deliver on these promises. What sort of promises are these, then?
At least Isaiah is a bit clearer about the content of the promise, even if he’s equally vague about the timing. It’s a promise of justice and peace. It’s a time when God will sit in judgement – [God] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.’ (2:4) When preachers start talking about God as judge a lot of people start going pale, as though that’s bad news. I don’t know, maybe they have a very negative view of God, or judges … or a very bad conscience.
In Isaiah, God’s day of judgement brings about peace among nations, agreement between peoples, and an end to war-making. What’s so bad about any of that? We could do with that sort of divine judgement in today’s world, never mind how things were back then, in the days of Isaiah and Jesus.
So, here we are in the first Sunday in Advent. We have two Bible readings containing promises, but both readings are fuzzy about timing. The Old Testament prophecy’s content, though, is pretty clear. It’s a promise about peace and justice. God, it seems, is about peace and justice, but maybe not when or how we expect it. And that fits so well with the traditional themes of Advent – God’s appearance on earth, in the physical birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, and the return of Christ – the Son of Man, as he’s described in Matthew’s Gospel – at the conclusion of all things.
God works in unexpected ways: ‘God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’ (R&S 59), it says in one eighteenth century hymn. Today, with Advent in mind, I think of a twentieth century hymn, written by John Bell and Graham Maule (R&S 178):
Who would think that what was needed
To transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army
Proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think despite derision,
That a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
Coming here on Christmas Day.
It’s just like God, who works in unexpected ways, to turn up in the person of a child, rather than an army. And then, it would be just like God for this child to live out a life of peace and justice: ‘glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ as angels tell some shepherds, camped out in fields near Bethlehem. (Luke 2:14) Isaiah foresaw God establishing peace and justice for the peoples of the earth; centuries later, the angels announced a Saviour (Luke 2:11) who would bring peace on earth.
God’s promise, announced through the prophet Isaiah, and incarnated in Jesus at Bethlehem, is for peace and justice here on earth. And today, we need it. That’s true, whether its peace and justice between nations, peace and justice within nations, within communities, within families and friendship groups; within hearts, minds and souls of people like you and me. And we want it now.
The problem is that the promise has not yet been fully delivered. There is not peace on earth or within ourselves. Yes, the process is underway, and the birth that we are going to celebrate in four Sundays’ time is the pivotal moment in that, but that time of peace and justice for the whole world has not yet arrived; so, when, O Lord, when?
And Jesus says, ‘about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ (24:36) And that’s frustrating, especially when you’ve been waiting two thousand years for it to come along. Who would have thought things could take that long after the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus? But there’s God for you, working to God’s own timetable in God’s own mysterious, unexpected ways.
But it’s not as if God has left us twiddling our thumbs, with nothing to do until that day or hour comes along. We wait expectantly. Jesus has told to do so: ‘if the owner of the house had known,’ says Jesus, ‘in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man will be coming at an unexpected hour.’ (24:43, 44) In this interim time, we’ve got a Christmas birth to celebrate, and lives to lead, where we get on with our little part in making life on earth today more peaceful, and more just.
So may God, who works in unexpected ways, work through us, so that we and others today can experience a taste of what the whole earth will know, when the Son of Man returns, and God delivers a divine judgement that brings peace, justice and life for all. Amen.