Sunday, November 27, 2016

God’s Peace is at Hand

Over the past month I have preached four times in Winnipeg at Grace Bible Church. GBC uses the lectionary, so I worked with the assigned texts, asking what they had to say to us today. One theme recurred in all four sermons: The already-not yet character of God’s reign on earth. It happens that today’s texts plunge me back into this theme, so we will consider it again this morning.

You know what I mean by “already-not yet”: God’s reign has come in the person of Jesus. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought the kingdom of God. You know that many of the parables in the gospel begin, “The kingdom of God is like …”, precisely because Jesus was teaching and preaching about the kingdom. Indeed, Matthew 4:17 describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with these words: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” And Mark 1:14-15 puts it this way: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

It is no surprise then when Jesus Luke records these words in 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” In the coming of Jesus God’s reign has also come to earth.

Not Yet
Of course, we look around us and see all of the problems in our world. Conflicts and violence are normal, and it is clear to us that God’s reign is not here in power. Instead, evil reigns in many places, so much so that we wonder if God has entered our world at all. Of course God has come: That is the hope of Advent. That is “the reason for the season.” That is what we want to talk about this morning.

The Texts
Isaiah 2:1-5
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Although we hear this passage often in Advent, it remains a remarkable vision of the End. (Remember that “End” means both a temporal ending and a goal towards which we move. This passage is teleological, not simply prophetic.) Isaiah lived in a time when the nations around Judah threatened its existence. During his life Assyria came close to destroying Judah and Jerusalem. People admired the powerful empires around them. They did not admire this weak small nation on the crossroads between Egypt and Assyria.

Yet Isaiah can see a future when God breaks into the scene and draws the nations to Jerusalem. We see that in this perfect future several things are true:
·         Israel (Judah) has become a place of righteousness and peace. People will come to Israel in order to find out how to experience God’s perfect justice and peace.
·         This perfection is seen in the law of God internalized in the people’s lives, so that they don’t have to explain God’s ways; they live God’s ways.
·         This internalized law leads to the settling of conflicts between people, so that God’s law achieves its purpose in the world (cf Exodus 19: 5-6).
·         The end result of this perfect relationship with God is complete peace and harmony between people and with all of creation (cf Romans 8: 18-25).

This perfect future is a description of God’s Reign at the end of all things. But, as we saw earlier, Jesus saw his ministry as the beginning of God’s Reign. That is one of the reasons that Jesus taught the way that he did. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he calls his disciples to live in a way fully consistent with Isaiah’s vision of the End. Again we see the already-not yet nature of the kingdom. God’s Reign began with Jesus, but every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we acknowledge that it is not yet fully here: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Matthew 24:36-44
36 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

In his words about the last hour Jesus reinforces this awareness that God’s Reign is not yet fully here. Rather, he tells his disciples that they will live in a normal world, full of conflict and distress. The last hour will be like the days before it, in which people are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Therefore, Jesus says, be ready for the last hour. “Be ready” means “live in the light of God’s Reign already here.”

What is “the last hour”? A few verses earlier (verse 30) Jesus had said: “”Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” The coming of the Son of Man, that is Jesus, with power and great glory. What we call the Second Coming. If we would read other passages about the second coming, we would find descriptions of the way that this ordinary time—people eating and drinking, marrying and growing their families—is also a time of conflict and pain. In Luke 21: 9-10 Jesus puts it this way: “‘When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’ Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.’”

This description of the time before the End parallels our passage: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. That is, life will be moving along normally, with the usual events of our lives, and the usual problems of our world. The troubles Jesus describes are an accurate picture of human history in general. We are tempted to think that such problems and conflict must be the End of all things, and we hope for that end to come quickly. “Maranatha! Lord! Come quickly!” But we find ourselves living in this time of normality and stress, life and death and troubles and joys. The time in between; the “already-not yet”. What do we do with this time?

The hymn, “Lo He comes with clouds descending” captures this time and our anticipation of the final end with great clarity. Go here for the service in which the hymn appears, at about the 1 hour and 17 minute mark, or here for a YouTube of the hymn. YouTube also has the 2014 First Advent service as a whole here.

As we look around our world, we are well aware of the “not yet” aspect of God’s Reign. Problems between our First Nations and the rest of us remind us that we are not yet in a time of full justice and peace. We are less aware perhaps of the way that God has been at work throughout history. Let me tell you a bit about that stream of history that reveals God’s Reign.

I teach the History of Christian Missions. It is a story that always amazes me. Many of us identify the missionary work of the church with colonialism. We think that the church has acted from a position of power and forced colonized people to come into the church. That has happened. From the Crusades to the English missionaries in the British Empire, Christians have preached from a position of power. But more often the gospel has flowed along lines of weakness and gone throughout the world with the oppressed of the world.

We don’t have time for a proper review, so I say just this much. In the first five centuries of the church the people of England came to faith through travelling merchants and other migrants, until a large part of the country was effectively Christian. Ireland became a largely Christian island through the ministry of Saint Patrick, a British lad who was taken to Ireland as a teenage slave by Irish Raiders. In the next five hundred years England was conquered first by the Saxons, then by Scandinavian raiders, and finally by the Normans. The Saxons and the Scandinavians were not Christian and the church appeared to be in danger of a literal death. But the invaders captured women whom they made their wives, and they enslaved others of the local population. The women and the slaves converted their conquerors, so that when modern England was born it was effectively Christian. I could tell a similar story of Germany and of Scandinavia more fully, but that is enough to make my point. You see how it works. God’s Reign does not flow through the powers of this world, but through the weak and powerless. God’s Reign is here, and as people discover what God brings, they turn to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

What is it that God brings? What do we find in God’s reign that is so attractive that the powerful accept the gospel from the powerless? The answer is in the text from Isaiah: Peace, justice, a clear heart and mind following God. In place of fear and destruction we find peace and joy. This is still true today.

In A Wind in the House of Islam David Garrison describes the world (or House) of Islam as having nine geo-cultural rooms. The remarkable fact about this House is that there are unprecedented movements to follow Jesus in each of these rooms. In the first 14 centuries of Islam the movement has been all one way: From Christian faith to Islam. But in the first 12 years of this century somewhere between two and nine million Muslims have become followers of Jesus. This does not mean that they have joined the Western Church. They continue in their own communities—in Bangladesh and Somalia, in Pakistan and in Indonesia. These stories are inspirational indeed. Something that impresses me is the reasons that Muslims are coming to follow Jesus. As he has travelled throughout the Muslim world, Garrison has asked many why they have begun to follow Jesus. A common refrain goes something like this: “I lived in constant fear. We were afraid that we would die, and we hated those who we thought were trying to kill us. Now that I know Jesus, I am filled with love for all people. I am no longer afraid to die, and I live at peace with those around me.” This is a contemporary description of Isaiah 2! The nations will stream to this perfect fulfillment of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.

Please note that these stories are not a triumphalist claim that the church has won. As I said, most of these new followers of Jesus are not joining the church; they are forming new fellowships of people who follow Jesus within their own communities. Over time, they tend to separate from the mosque, but the point is that they follow Jesus. I long for a similar moving of God’s Spirit in “the House of Christianity”. I long for a similar moving of God’s Spirit throughout Canada and the United States.


Advent is the season to remember Jesus’ first coming, and it is the time to anticipate Jesus’ return. We can begin to show the peace and wholeness of Isaiah 2 now because Jesus has begun God’s Reign in our lives. Matthew 24 reminds us that the kingdom is still coming, but we know that it is also already here. “God’s peace is at hand. Come, walk in the way of God’s heart.”

27 November 2016
Grace Bible Church
Texts: Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44

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