Monday, 20 August 2018

Do Spiritual Gifts Still Happen?

Isaiah 11.1-10 
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 

1 Corinthians 12.4-11
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

It is strange but true, that one of the most divisive issues

          for Christians over the past hundred years
has been a difference of opinion
          about the way in which the Holy Spirit
          gifts and empowers people for ministry.

And this morning, I’m going to invite us to think
          about what the gifting of the Holy Spirit might mean for us,
          who gather for worship and witness here at Bloomsbury, week by week.

Today also marks the beginning of our new sermon series,
          which I’ve rather cheekily entitled the ‘Anti-Lectionary’.

If you’re wondering what this is all about - let me explain.

The normal lectionary, or the Revised Common Lectionary as it is more properly called,
          is a set pattern of readings,
which takes those congregations who follow it
          on a three year journey through the Bible,
with each week having assigned readings from a gospel, an epistle,
          a psalm, and an Old Testament passage.

If you go to a Church of England congregation, or a Methodist church,
          these will be the passages you hear in worship,
and if you go back exactly three years later,
          you’ll hear exactly the same passages again.

Some Baptist churches use it, and some don’t.
          We’ve kind of used it here at Bloomsbury over the years;
          but by the same token, we’ve departed from it if we’ve wanted to.

There are many advantages of following the lectionary readings each week,
          but there are also a couple of disadvantages.

Firstly, I’m not sure that I’ll always have something entirely new to say
          on a passage just three years after I last preached on it.
I suppose I could just repeat sermons and see if anyone notices,
          but that doesn’t quite feel right.

But secondly, and more significantly from my point of view,
          there are large parts of the Bible which simply never make the cut,
          and so don’t ever get looked at on a Sunday.

The original idea of an Anti-Lectionary preaching series
          was to make space for us to spend time with those passages
          that are normally passed over.
It’s kind of metamorphosed slightly in the making,
          and now includes passages or topics that you might not have thought
          you’d ever hear preached at Bloomsbury.
This morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians
          on the gifts of the Spirit falls into that category.

If you didn’t get a leaflet with the preaching plan for the rest of the year last week,
          please collect one from the foyer afterwards if you’re interested.

Anyway, back to the gifts of the Spirit.

Many of us here this morning will have come to faith in, or had experience of,
          churches which emphasise the exercising of the gifts of the Spirit.

If this happened in the UK,
          the chances are that the church in question had been influenced
          by what has become known as the Charismatic Movement.

The name comes from the ancient Greek word χάρισμα (khárisma),
          which means ‘gift of grace’,
and it refers to the belief that God freely gives to those who follow Jesus
          the gifts of the Spirit which we heard about in our reading earlier.

The idea here is that each congregation should include people
          who have the gift of wisdom, or knowledge, or faith, or healing,
          or working miracles, or prophecy, or discernment,
          or tongues, or interpretation;
such that all the gifts are present in each congregation.

Also, the belief is often expressed in Charismatic churches
          that each person should have at least one of these gifts to use, if not more.

The Charismatic Movement has influenced churches across the world,
          and across denominations, from Anglican to Catholic,
          from Methodist to Baptist, and so on.

This means that whereas you used to be able to tell the difference between, say,
          a Baptist service and a Methodist service fairly easily,
                 with distinct worship styles and different hymns,
          these days a Charismatic-Methodist service
                 will look very much like a Charismatic-Baptist service,
                 just as it will a Charismatic-Anglican, United Reformed, or whatever.

They will sing the same songs, and say similar prayers,
          which have arisen to create a worship context within which
          the gifts of the Spirit will be exercised.
Does this sound familiar to you?

Certainly, I’ve been in worship services
          where people have engaged in communal singing in tongues,
                 in bringing words of prophecy,
          in praying for healing or miracles,
                 in speaking in tongues and praying for interpretation.

I remember once when I was a teenager at Spring Harvest,
          I went to a late night so-called ‘Spiritual Gifts’ seminar
                 with a famous Charismatic leader,
          and the expectation was very much that each of us
                 should ask for and receive these gifts,
                 and exercise them there-and-then.
To begin nailing my own colours to the mast,
          I found it very intimidating, manipulative, and didn’t stay until the end.

But that isn’t to say that I am entirely cynical about these things,
          as we shall discover.
Did you know, for example, that I have on occasions
          used the gift of speaking in tongues?
          More on that later.

But first, a bit more history.

The Charismatic renewal movement of the 1970s
          has its origins in Wales and Los Angeles.
The 1904 a young Welsh coal miner named Evan Roberts
          experienced a personal awakening of his already devout faith,
          and started receiving visions which he ascribed to the Holy Spirit.
He became convinced of the idea
          that all Christians should seek such an experience of the Spirit,
          which would be secondary to their initial conversion to faith,
and he used the phrase Baptism in the Spirit from the book of Acts (1.4-5; 11.16)
          to describe this.

So, you might be baptised in water at your conversion,
          but later you could be baptised in the Spirit.
The mark of whether someone had received this ‘second baptism’
          would be whether they exercised the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

He started training for ministry, but never completed his course
          because his preaching triggered what came to be known as the Welsh Revival.
In October 1904 he started speaking at small meetings,
          which were soon attracting thousands.
It is estimated that 100,000 people converted within a few months,
          and the meetings were marked with people exercising Charismatic gifts,
          and also changing their behaviour by giving up alcohol, and stopping swearing.
There are stories of pit ponies not responding to commands
          because the language of their masters had changed so dramatically.

Evan Roberts himself suffered emotional and physical collapse after about 18 months,
          and retired from public ministry to devote himself to prayer;
and the influence of the revival itself was relatively short lived,
          with many churches emptying within a generation.

You can trace the Welsh Revival against the economic boom and bust
          created by the coal industry,
          but that isn’t the end of it’s story.

Revivalist missionaries took the message of being Baptised in the Holy Spirit,
          or born again in the Holy Spirit, around the world,
and the next big event was the Azuza Street revival of 1906 in Los Angeles.

Directly influenced by the Welsh Revival, but rather longer lasting,
          the Azuza Street revival ran for about nine years,
and was characterised by spiritual experiences
          with regular testimonies of physical healing miracles,
          and worship services including the public speaking in tongues.

The significance of Azuza Street is that it brought revival
          to the impoverished black communities of the United States,
and sparked the worldwide movement now known as Pentecostalism
          - named after the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples
          at Pentecost as described in the book of Acts (2.1-11).

These days, you can find Pentecostal churches in most countries around the world,
          including our own,
and they directly influenced the Charismatic renewal movement
          where we began our trip down memory lane.

Bloomsbury, as a church, has typically resisted
          the influence of the Charismatic tradition in our Sunday worship
- to the best of my knowledge we’ve not had speaking in tongues in worship,
          or testimonies of miraculous healing during services.

But does this mean we’re immune from the gifts of the Spirit?
          I hope not, and I will get to the passage in a minute.
          But allow me one more historical example before I do.

Some churches, particularly the Strict Baptists and the Brethren,
          have adopted a belief known as cessationism.
This is the belief that the spiritual gifts ceased with the apostolic age.

These churches can’t deny that miracles, healings, and speaking in tongues happened,
          because their literal approach to scripture demands that they believe
          these things took place in the early church.

But they teach that these gifts were given to establish the church in its early years,
          and died out when the last of the apostles died.

I think it’s useful for us here at Bloomsbury to know this other side of the coin exists,
          because just as our tradition doesn’t include
                 an emphasis on charismatic renewal,
          neither does it include the doctrine of cessationism.

I don’t think we believe that the activity of the Spirit in the world,
          and in those who seek God in Christ,
finished nearly two thousand year so.

So, after all that, what are we to make of the Spiritual gifts?

Well, firstly, I’d like us to hear very clearly what is said in verse 7
          of our passage this morning, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’.

These gifts of the Spirit, whatever they are and however they are received,
          are never given just for the benefit or one section of the church,
nor are they given for the primary benefit of the person gifted.

They may be given individually,
          but they are to be received communally.

The phrase ‘for the common good’ has a special resonance for me,
          as I’ve done some writing on this in the past,
and it is my firm belief that no church should ever see itself
          as existing for its own benefit.
It’s a slightly hackneyed one-liner,
          but the church is the only organisation
          that doesn’t exist for the benefit of its own members.

So as we look at these gifts,
          I’d like us to keep at the forefront of our minds
          the question of how they can contribute to the common good?
How they can be of the benefit of those beyond
          the community and individuals that receive and use them?

In the analysis that follows, I’d like to say how helpful I found
          the writing of Anthony Thiselton,
who is one of the great New Testament scholars of the last few decades.

With one exception,
          I’m going to be taking these gifts of the Spirit that Paul lists in pairs,
          because I think he has this in mind as he lists them.

The exception is the third one in his list, the gift of ‘Faith’,
          and I’ll start with this one.
We don’t often tend to think of ‘faith’ as a gift,
          but there it is, nestled in the list between knowledge and healing.

I’m starting here,
          because if there is one gift on this list that I think I’ve got,
          it’s the gift of faith.
But before I get too big-headed,
          I need to own up to the fact that I hold the gift of faith
          alongside it’s invisible counterpart, which Paul doesn’t mention,
          and that’s the gift of doubt.

There is something in me that questions everything,
          takes very little at face value,
and always wants to ask ‘why?’ when someone tells me
          I should believe or do something.

It’s this gift of doubt that drove me to study Biblical Studies at University,
          to try and ask the hardest questions I could of my faith,
to see if it could survive the onslaught of my mind
          at its most logical and questioning.

I have, over the years, seen others find their faith fading
          in the light of the insights of historical critical biblical scholarship.
And all I can say is that mine didn’t.
          My faith survived.

It changed, it grew in some areas and shrank in others,
          my faith doesn’t look the same now
                 as I did when I was 19 and off to university,
          but then, neither does my body!

However, despite it all I do still have faith;
          and that is, I think, a gift from God
- given to me to enable me to offer my gifts
          to the service of the church and the world
          through ministry, and teaching, and service.

Not everyone has this, and I’m grateful that I do.

But I also want to make clear that this ‘gift of faith’
          is different from the trustful faith that every Christian has
          - we are all of us justified by grace through faith.
I’m not advocating some Calvinist approach to conversion
          where only those chosen can have faith in Jesus.
We all of us have faith, but some of us, it seems,
          have an especial gifting of faith
to sustain not just themselves but their church community
          through times of uncertainty, difficulty, and doubt.

Moving on, then, what are we to make of Wisdom and Knowledge?

These are both what we might call ‘Corinthian Catchphrases’
          - they crop up again and again
                 as you read through this letter to the church in Corinth,[1]
          and interestingly Paul isn’t always complimentary about them.

He says that his own calling to proclaim the gospel
          was not a calling to use wisdom,
because true faith is built on an encounter with God in Christ,
          not on the wisdom of words.

And he says that knowledge puffs people up,
          that it can be a stumbling block to the weak,
and that in any case knowledge will eventually pass away
          leaving only love.

So those of us who value knowledge, and prize wisdom,
          need to hear that these are not the be-all and end-all of faith.
As Paul puts it, if we have these but have not love,
          we are nothing.

That said, what are they?

The gift of wisdom traces its origin
          to our Old Testament passage for this morning,
          from the prophet Isaiah,
where we read of the Spirit of God giving wisdom and knowledge
          to the messianic figure.

Within Judaism more broadly,
          Wisdom was sometimes personified as a woman,
and in books like Proverbs she is depicted as crying out in the streets,
          longing for people to listen to her words.

All of this is in the background for Paul
          describing wisdom as a gift of the Spirit,
and he probably has in mind the idea
          that just as the Spirit gave wisdom to the messiah,
so the same Spirit gives wisdom to body of the messiah, the church.

On this understanding, the ability to speak wisely,
                 which is the gift of the Spirit,
          is distinguished from speech which is merely clever,
                 which is a human construction.

And in terms of our criteria of the common good
          - the world needs wise speech,
                 that cuts through the cleverness and sophistry of so much of our discourse.
The ability to put the deepest knowledge into words is a rare gift,
          and it should be valued when it is given.

By the same token, the spiritual gift of knowledge
          is again very different from just knowing things.
You’ll have heard Oscar Wilde’s saying that a cynic is someone,
          ‘who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’?[2]
Well, in our information age,
          we now have the capacity to know everything,
                 but to still know nothing.

The Spiritual gift of knowledge
          is the gift of knowing things deeply and well,
and of being able to use that knowledge for the building up of others.

I tend to think that a good teacher is someone who has the gift of knowledge.
          They know how to handle knowledge, to sift the wheat from the chaff,
                 and to share that with others in ways that are beneficial.

What the gifts of knowledge and wisdom are NOT, I should add,
          are the permission to randomly speak ad hoc messages
                 to individuals about their condition.
That, it has always seemed to me,
          is an abuse of power predicated on wishful thinking.

Enough said, let’s move on.

What are we to make of healing and miracles?

There’s a wonderful story in one of the Adrian Plass books,
          when he’s off to a so-called healing meeting at a church,
and his wife discovers him lying on his back in the hallway,
          with his feet planted against the front door.
She asks him what he’s doing,
          and he replies that he’s checking his legs are the same length before he goes,
                 so no-one can claim to have fixed his bad back
                 by making one of his legs grow in response to prayer.

We may laugh, I want to laugh,
          but this is what people have reduced the gift of healing to:
                 Random acts of capricious supernatural intervention
                 to heal minor or serious ailments in response to prayer or faith.

We need to get back to the Greek, if we are to escape this nonsense.

Our church Bibles translate this as ‘gifts of healing’,
          which unfortunately misses the fact that both ‘gifts’ and ‘healing’
                 are in the plural in the original Greek.
A better translation might be, ‘gifts for various kinds of healing’.
          It’s not one gift, nor one mode of healing.

But… I can hear you asking… is there still a place for supernatural healing?

Well, you may be interested to hear
          that one of the founders of the modern Pentecostal movement, Donald Gee,
          stated that we should ‘not preclude… the merciful and manifold work
                 of medical healing.’ when talking about the spiritual gift of healing[3]

And interestingly, Paul doesn’t refer to gifts of healing
          anywhere else in his epistles outside of this chapter from 1 Corinthians.

Karl Barth suggested that Paul’s aim here
          was to underline the source rather than the means of healing,
and we need to remember that in the first century,
          very little was known about the processes of healing.

They had no knowledge of germs, or microbes, or the human immune system,
          so perfectly natural processes could appear miraculous,
          and things that seem nonsense to us were the bedrock
                 of what they held to be medical science.

The best I can offer here is that it seems to me
          that the kinds of healing which are offered for the common good
          are the kinds of healing offered by medical missionaries,
                 doctors, nurses, research chemists,
                 and the whole of the rest of the medical profession
                         that keeps most of us alive a lot longer than we would be without it.

But still, even so, not all are healed,
          and we all die eventually.

As Paul discovered in his prayer to be relieved of the thorn in his flesh,
          sometimes the gift of God in the face of illness
          is sufficient grace to be content in weakness (2 Cor 12.7).

But what about miraculous healing? I can still hear you asking…

And my answer is itself a question:
          to those who want to assert a belief in the spiritual gift of miracles,
                 where certain individuals have a supernatural ability
                 to transcend the laws of nature,
          tell me how this serves the common good?

You see, I’m not really sure it’s possible
          to divide God’s action into two categories of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’.
If God is involved, it’s ‘supernatural’,
          even if it is also entirely ‘natural’.

We must be so careful, you see, not to retrospectively impose
          our post eighteenth century enlightenment mind-set onto these ancient texts.

To say that some things are miraculous, and some are not,
          can have the unintended consequence
of reducing rather than expanding our understanding
          of the scope of God’s action in the world.

My preferred reading of the Spiritual gift of miracles
          is that suggested by Anthony Thiselton,
who says that we should think of this as the ability
          to perform actively affective deeds of power.

Not actions against nature,
          but actions which function powerfully in the world
                 to affect the world for good.

Such interventions, originating with the Spirit of Christ,
          can change the world far more than some parlour trick.

But more on this in a future sermon. It’s time to move on…

Prophecy and Discernment come next.

Prophecy can be thought of
          as ‘declaring or telling forth the revealed will of God’.

What prophecy isn’t, is predicting the future.
          It isn’t this in the Old Testament,
                 it isn’t this in the New Testament,
                 and it isn’t this today.

Prophecy and prediction are not the same.

The Old Testament prophets mediated the world of God to Israel,
          and told the world what God was saying.

Prophecy is, I would suggest, therefore a kind of preaching.

Certainly this is how Paul saw the gift,
          and he presents prophetic speech as that which builds up the church,
                 by nurturing the faith of believers,
                 and by convincing those outside the community
                         of the truth of the gospel of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14.24-25).

And the test of prophecy isn’t ‘whether it comes true’,
          but rather it is the ability to discern the difference
                 between what is generated by the human spirit,
                 and what is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

The spiritual gift of discernment
          is the ability to discern whether someone’s claim
                 to be speaking at the prompting of the Spirit is genuine.

And we need this gift more than ever,
          with voices on the internet and in pulpits up and down the country
          all trying to convince us that their words are God’s words.

To which I say, test it.
          Ask for the gift of discernment.
Don’t just take my word for it.
          I’m just saying what I think God is wanting me to say,
          it’s up to you to discern whether I’m right or not.

In a Baptist context, the gift of discernment
          is exercised primarily in our church meetings,
          when we gather to collectively discern the mind of Christ
                 for our congregation and context.

And finally we come to the gifts of tongues and interpretation.

There could be a whole sermon on this alone,
          and I’ve already gone on long enough, so I’ll keep it brief.

It’s not entirely clear what Paul is talking about
          when he speaks of the gift of speaking in tongues.
Some have suggested he means ‘angelic speech’;
          others that he means the miraculous ability to speak foreign languages;
                 others that he means liturgical language;
          others that he means ecstatic speech;
                 and others that he means a verbal mechanism of release
                 for longing or praise that is too deep for words.

I think it’s this last one.
          A kind of meditative practice, if you like,
                 where the chanting of inarticulate syllables
                         frees the mind from the trammels of rational thought
                         to encounter God at levels deeper than words.

As Paul himself says in Romans (8.26-7)
‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
     but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit,
     because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’

So yes, I have, at times, tried this.
          Strictly in private, as most of my spiritual devotions are.
And it can be helpful.
          Feel free to give it a go if you want.
Think of it as a spiritual practice that might be of use
          when you’ve run out of words to say the thing you most need to say to God.

What it isn’t, according to Paul,
          is a necessary gift to prove some second blessing,
                 or baptism in the spirit, or born-againness, or even salvation.

But if the gift of tongues is to meet our ‘common good’ test,
          and to go beyond private devotion,
it needs something more,
          and this is where the gift of interpretation,
                 of the intelligent articulation of tongues speech, comes into play.

Many in charismatic circles
          have come to regard interpretation of tongues
                 as a separate gift from the gift of tongues,
          but that is not the most natural way to read the passage.

Paul is clear a couple of chapter later in the letter (14.3)
          that the tongues speaker should themselves be the person
          who brings a public articulation of their wordless longings.

And the best way to read our passage this morning
          is that while some people just have the gift of tongues, which is for use in private,
          others also have a secondary gift in addition to the gift of tongues,
                 that they are able to put into words what they have been saying wordlessly,
                 and share that for the benefit of others.

The ability to articulate deep emotions, longings, and experiences
          for the building up of others is a rare gift,
                 but it is valuable and precious when it is given.

Communication in intelligible, rational terms to others,
          of insights revealed through a gift,
is important if the primary gift of tongues is going to serve the common good.

And so we come to the end, and a warning to close.

To envy someone else’s gift, or conversely to question its value,
          is to question the sovereign gracious will of God’s Holy Spirit
          in determining to whom he apportions which gifts.

We need all these gifts together
          if we are to be good news to the world,
and we need to use them together,
          for the common good of all.

[1] ‘Wisdom’ 1.17; 2.1, 5, 6; 3.19. ‘Knowledge’ 1.5; 8.1, 7, 10, 11; 13.2, 8; 14.6
[2] Lady Windermere’s Fan
[3] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, p.199

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Returning Jesus

Hebrews Series 8 – The Returning Jesus
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 12 August 2018

Isaiah 53.11b-12; Habakkuk 2.2-4
Hebrews 10.24-25, 35-38; 9.26b-28

Listen to the sermon here:

Do you ever have those days when the tension between the world as it is,
            and the world as it should be, seems particularly acute?

Whether it’s something in your own life,
            or in the life of someone close to you,
or something in another part of the world entirely,
            affecting people you will never meet;
sometimes the world just isn’t the way the world should be.

The wicked prosper, the righteous suffer,
            and the world just keeps turning,
            grinding all to dust with the inexorability of an unfeeling machine.

And where, in all of this, we might well wonder, is God to be found?
            Where is hope? Where is life, joy, and love?

Now forgive me, I don’t mean to get you depressed on a Sunday morning,
            but these were the questions facing the congregation
                        who first received the sermon to the Hebrews,
            just as they had been the questions that Israel had wrestled with
                        through their long years of exile and oppression six centuries earlier,
            just as they are questions that still haunt our own lives
                        some two thousand years later.

The world is not the way it should be.

And this tension between the world as it is, and the world as it should be,
            is an unresolved tension that runs through all of human history;
and the question of where God fits into it
            is one of the great mysteries of theology.

So today, as we conclude our eight week series on the book of Hebrews,
            we find ourselves asking,
                        along with so many other people of faith down the millennia,
            what we are to make of the fact
                        that good so often seems to lose out to evil.

Certainly for the small and struggling group of Christians in Rome,
            to whom this sermon we call ‘Hebrews’ was first sent,
            things were far from the way they should have been.

Their faith in Jesus, in the stories of his death and resurrection,
            led them to believe that they were worshipping the Lord of all,
                        the King of the Universe,
            the one in whom power and love came together
                        to liberate the oppressed and to bring good news to the poor.

But their daily reality was that the Emperor still reigned supreme
            over not only their own city, but the whole of the known world.
They were required by Roman law
            to make offerings of worship to the emperor,
            and at risk of punishment for treason if they refused.

The world of their faith conviction
            simply didn’t match the world of their experience.
It was as if Jesus had come to the earth,
            inaugurated this wonderful revolution of love and forgiveness,
                        and new life, and eternal hope,
            and then vanished as suddenly as he had appeared,
                        leaving those whose lives his story touched and transformed
                        to work it out for themselves under hostile conditions.

You will remember, if you’ve been following this series over the last couple of months,
            (and if you haven’t you can catch up via our website),
you will remember that the congregation had a basic problem,
            which was that they had lost sight of Jesus.

His historical incarnation was receding into history,
            and his spiritual presence was on high seated at the right hand of the father,
leaving his followers lost, alone, and increasingly dispirited.

And nowhere is this sense of abandonment more acute
            than in the moment of tension between the world as it is,
                        and the world as it should be.

Maybe you too, like me, like so many who have gone before us,
            feel something of the frustration of this disconnect?

We pray, we try, we trust,
            we act, we hope, we persevere,
            but still the world is not changed.
In fact, if we are honest, still we ourselves are not changed,
            or at least not changed enough.
We still sin, we still get it wrong,
            we still hurt others by our ignorance and by our design,
            we still stand in need of forgiveness, in the hope of transformation.

Was this what Christ died for?
            Is this the good news of his resurrection? Is this it?
Is a hope never realised all we have to hope for,
            even after two thousand years of Christian witness?

I mean, forget the 35 years
            that was causing problems for the congregation addressed in Hebrews,
what about us???

And here we need to start hearing the wisdom of the preacher of Hebrews,
            as he points his congregation to one final, further vision of Jesus.

He has already shown them the Sustaining Jesus,
            present in and through all things;
and the Pastoral Jesus,
            entering fully into human weakness and suffering;
and the Speaking Jesus,
            declaring God’s words for all who will listen;
and the Familial Jesus,
            inviting his followers to be part of his family;
and the Accessible Jesus,
            opening the pathway to God;
and the Visible Jesus,
            revealing God to humanity;
and the Vulnerable Jesus,
            dying for the forgiveness of the sins of the world;
and then finally, he points them to the returning Jesus,
            who has not, he asserts, left the earth for good,
            but returns to bring to completion
                        that which he started during his earthly ministry.

And here we find ourselves in the middle
            of the theological doctrine known as eschatology.
That is, the doctrine of the end,
            the theology of the last things.

And as we try to get to grips with the preacher’s description of the Returning Jesus,
            I’d like to sound a note of warning…
There’s a great danger with eschatology,
            and it is that it can simply push the solution to our problem,
                        of a disconnect between the way the world is,
                        and the way the world should be,
            into some imagined or hoped-for future,
                        when wrongs will be righted and tears wiped away.

In some versions of eschatology this is depicted
            as a heavenly judgment scene which everyone experiences after death;
and in other versions it is a re-creation and purification
            of the earth through some process of tribulation
                        by which the evil get their come-uppance
                        before the righteous get their crowns of eternal glory.

Sometimes, you get a combination of these two,
            in ever more creative eschatological schemes
                        relating to debates about pre-, post-, or a-millennialism,
                                    partial or full rapture, and pre- or post-tribulationism.
                        Not to mention the debates around dispensationalism.
If none of this means much to you,
            then I’m going to say ‘fine’,
            and my suggestion is to spend your time more productively elsewhere.

But there will be those here this morning
            whose past includes a certain kind of church
                        where these things REALLY MATTER,
            to the extent that if you disagree on some finer point of eschatology,
                        you run the risk of being declared a heretic.

Some of us will have grown into faith
            haunted by a future image of the Returning Jesus
                        descending from the clouds with wrath and punishment,
            coming back to kick sinners and take names.

Sing it with me if you like:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming again.

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Already knows Who’s naughty and nice
Jesus Christ  is coming again

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming again.

Sound familiar? I think it sounds terrifying!

But maybe you have experienced the other kind of eschatology,
            where the whole earth itself is going to be judged, destroyed, and re-created.
This is particularly prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic,
            and is often linked to a lack of concern about, or denial of,
                        issues like climate change or conservationism,
            whereby we don’t need to care for this planet
                        because it is quite literally going to hell anyway;
            and what matters is moral purity
                        and preaching salvation to those who are lost.

This kind of eschatology has tended in recent years
            to focus around the issues of abortion and human sexuality
            as the defining markers of orthodoxy.

So, in the face of these two eschatologies,
            the personalised and the globalised,
how are we to hear the preacher of Hebrews’ call
            to encounter the Returning Jesus?

I’m going to suggest that the beginnings of an answer
            lie in the Lord’s Prayer, and the Old Testament.

Firstly, the Lord’s Prayer,
            which we have already said together this morning, as we do every week.
Jesus tells his disciples to pray,
            ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
The transformation in view here
            is not something to be experienced post mortem,
            or in a renewed creation.

The Christ-like prayer
            is for the kingdom of God that is beyond us,
            to come into being in the world around us.
The Lord’s Prayer is for ‘the world as it should be’
            to break in upon ‘the world as it is’.

As with all things theological, there’s a technical term for this,
            and it’s called ‘realised eschatology’,
which is basically a way of saying
            that instead of the solution to our problem
                        being somewhere in the future,
                        or somewhere eternally beyond us,
            it is actually breaking in upon us in the present
                        as the world beyond us becomes the world around us.

And so the preacher of Hebrews takes us, through a textual allusion,
            to the time of the Israelite exile in Babylon,
to a time when the world as it should be
            was very far removed from the world as experienced by the exiles,
                        so far from their homes, with no prospect of restoration.

It was to the exiles in Babylon that the prophet known as Second Isaiah
            wrote the songs of the suffering servant,
which depicted the suffering of the people of Israel, God’s servant,
            as the precursor to their restoration to their land.

Israel’s suffering is depicted as absorbing the sins of her tormentors,
            and as opening the possibility of a new world
                        breaking into their present suffering
            to transform their world as it is
                        into something closer to the world as it should be.

Then the preacher whisks his readers through another allusion
            to the writings of the prophet Habakkuk,
who was addressing the situation faced by the post-exilic Jewish community,
            who had been repatriated to their native homeland.
All, it seems, was not well in paradise,
            and the Chaldeans, the New Babylonians, were threatening their safety.

The book of Habakkuk takes the form of a dialogue
            between the prophet and God;
the prophet raises a complaint to God
            about rampant social injustice in Judean society,
and God’s response is to challenge the prophet
            to write on a billboard large enough for even a runner to read,
            the promise that the world will not be like this forever,
                        because the future is continually breaking in upon the present.

In these two Old Testament prophetic readings,
            we have a view of history that is essentially cyclical;
oppression and evil give way to justice and restoration,
            but then evil raises its ugly head again,
            and so on through the centuries…

And is this the answer, ponders the preacher:
            sometimes the world as it should be breaks into the world as it is,
            and sometimes it doesn’t?

Well, kind of, but he goes further…
            because he addresses the role of the faithful people of God in all of this.
What is it that keeps evil at bay?
            How does the world beyond us break in upon us?
The answer he offers
            is that it is as the people of Christ proclaim the gospel of Christ,
                        that Christ returns once again to the earth
                        bringing new hope, new life, new love.

So he encourages his readers to not give up meeting,
            to persevere in worship and prayer,
            and in encouraging one another.

He tells them to never abandon their confidence in Christ,
            because this is what will give them the endurance
            to run the race of life to its faithful conclusion.

And key to all of this is the repeated proclamation
            of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
who like the suffering servant Israel in Babylon,
            takes the sins of the many into his own suffering
            to bring healing and freedom and release to all.

And here we come to the crux of the preacher’s point.
            For him, Jesus has broken the spiralling pattern
                        of good giving way to evil, giving way to good, and so on ad infinitum.
            Because in his death,
                        Jesus has overthrown the pattern of death followed by judgment.

Listen again to the verses from our reading from chapter 9:

Hebrews 9.27-28
And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

In Jesus’ death, the power of sin
            to continually re-ensnare and entrap humanity is broken.
Jesus does not return to punish, but to rescue.
            He comes to gather and not to trample.
He comes again, and again, and again,
            wherever and whenever his people proclaim the good news of his resurrection,
            and he comes to bring new life.

And so to us, today.
            We each of us, individually and collectively, need a daily new advent;
                        we need Christ to come to us again,
                        to break us out of our acquiescence.

Our meeting together, our worship, our prayer,
            our naming of Jesus as Lord,
all these keep us from re-enslavement to sin,
            as the one who is beyond us
            keeps breaking in new ways into our present,
                        with love, and forgiveness,
                        and new life, and new hope,
                        and a new vision for the future.

So what does this mean for us, here at Bloomsbury in 2018?
            How are we to encounter the returning Jesus?

Well, firstly, I think we can lay to rest
            the fear of the future that unhealthy and unhelpful eschatologies have given us.
The Returning Jesus is not a cause for fear,
            or for disengagement from the world.
In fact, it is the opposite.
            The Jesus who comes to us again and again,
                        calling us to pray that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,
                        calls us to live and work for that coming kingdom.

But where and in what ways will we meet the one who will not let us alone,
            because he comes to us daily from beyond ourselves,
            calling us to new life and fresh purpose?

Some of you may have noticed
            that the language I’ve been using to describe the doctrine of eschatology
            was borrowed from the Citizens UK community organising methodology.

They talk continually about the fact
            that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be;
and the purpose of their networking and organising strategy
            is to build enough power to be able to make changes in the world
            that will have lasting effect.

It is no coincidence that so many churches, including our own, are part of this,
            along with mosques, synagogues, school, universities,
            and other community organisations.

The preacher to the Hebrews knew the benefit of not giving up meeting together,
            because he knew that together we are stronger than when we are alone.

And so in London, in 2018, we need our allies, our partners,
            if we are see people’s lives lifted up and gifted with new life.
From Dragon Hall to Citizens UK to the Simon Community,
            from the Soho Gathering to ecumenical partnerships to our commercial hirers,
we need to find ways of working together with others,
            in order to bring the world beyond us into the world around us.

But we must never forget that we do this because of Jesus,
            it is the one we worship who has lifted our eyes above the horizon,
and given us a glimpse of an alternative
            that he then calls us to live and work towards.

It was Martin Luther King who once said that,
            ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
What is not often realised about this quote
            is that for King, it only made sense to say this
in the context of his living faith in the power of Christ
            to effect change in the human heart.

The danger which liberal, socially minded Christianity can face
            is that we end up losing sight of Jesus,
                        in the midst of our striving to bring into being the new world
                        for which we have been so earnestly praying.

‘Well’, said the preacher of Hebrews to a congregation that had lost sight of Jesus,
            ‘there he is, coming to you again and again and again,
breaking into your present with a promise of something different,
            and calling you to act, collectively and individually,
            in response to his presence.’

So provoke one another to love and good deeds,
            do not neglect to meet together,
work with others, encouraging one another,
            do not abandon that confidence of yours,
                        because it brings great reward.
And you will need endurance,
            for the change you seek is coming,
            but it comes slowly.
Don’t shrink back, but live righteously by faith,
            and trust that your failings and sin are removed from you by Jesus,
who leads you from death to life,
            as he comes to you again, and again, and again.