"We do not have to stand up in court accused of being a Christian and spreading the Gospel. Indeed, its a sad fact that many who call themselves Christians would probably be acquitted in a court of law through lack of evidence."
At this moment in time, what are you looking forward to? The sun shining as you open the curtains in the morning?
Do look further ahead? Warmer spring days and the first daffodils or tulips flowering? A nice holiday somewhere in the sun? Aches and pains to disappear?
Some would look forward to that big lottery win - Thats the hope that keeps them plodding on week after week stuck in the same rut. Others would look forward to a comfortable retirement, and more leisure time to spend with family and friends.
Some might just be hoping for better times than the one they are currently in - "things can only get better" syndrome.
Its good to have something to look forward to, to have expectations of what might happen in the future. Be it tomorrow, next week or several years hence, its good for our peace of mind to hope for something better than the "now" that were living in, even if the "now" is actually quite comfortable.
The Jews of Jesus time were no different. To a Jew, life was lived in "the present age", which was by no means perfect, in fact it was age characterised by sin and evil- a reflection of the distance that had developed between them and their God. They longed for better times when once again they would be reconciled to their Creator, and He would be acknowledged by the whole universe as the one true God.
They were busy looking forward to making the transition from "the present age" to "the age to come"
This would be altogether different - an age where God would rule supreme and His people would finally get their inheritance.
The only trouble was that lurking between these two ages was THE DAY OF THE LORD - a day written in large capitals that could certainly not be ignored, because there would be the most terrible catastrophes and cosmic upheaval. Listen what the Old Testament prophets and even Peter in the New Testament had to say about THE DAY OF THE LORD: -
"The stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light... Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger... The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare" (Isaiah 13:10-13; cp Joel 2:30-31, 2 Peter 3:10)
You can see how these words have been picked up on by modern religious sects, with images of global nuclear war or asteroids hitting the earth.
Tied up with the imagery of The Day of the Lord, especially with early Christians was another hope, and thats the coming of The Son of Man, and verses 27 and 28 refer to that. The Son of Man is a title that goes back to the book of Daniel chapter 7.
The writer has a vision of horrid beasts that symbolise the terrible world powers that had until that time dominated the Jews - the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians and the Macedonians. Dominion is to be taken away from them and handed to "one like a son of man" whose dominion is "an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is one that will never be displayed."
The Jews personified this son of man (small letters) into The Son of Man (capitals), the almighty deliverer of mankind promised by God.
But this was where the people were coming from, this was the Jewish mindset that was ingrained even in the disciples minds.
Jesus knew all this, and we know that he didnt think about the Kingdom of God in earthly terms but he did choose to call himself Son of Man, showing that he considered himself as Gods chosen instrument in bringing in His Kingdom.
It was going to be a tough time - warfare, persecution, imprisonment, many deaths, earthquakes, famines, pestilence and all manner of strange cosmic catastrophes - before the Jews hope was realised.
But Jesus wasnt telling his disciples anything that they didnt already think was going to happen when he talked about wars and revolutions, pestilence and great signs from heaven - this was what the Jews were looking forward to (or at least looking forward to the age to come which followed!)
He also talked about the persecution that was to come even before all those other horrible things started
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name." Luke 21:12
and of something that would strike terror into the hearts of his listeners - the destruction of Jerusalem. This took place in AD70 after a desperate siege in which the inhabitants were reduced to cannibalism in order to survive. Josephus says that 1.1 million people perished in the siege and a further 97,000 were taken into captivity. The Jewish nation was to be obliterated.
At this point I should think the disciples were regretting that theyd ever pointed at the beautiful stonework of the temple, and the gift offerings to God which had been so neatly laid out.
This was not going to be a good time to be a Christian. Better perhaps to keep quiet, keep your head down and play safe until it had all blown over? Then re-emerge victorious. That makes more sense, surely?
"No!" says Jesus. "Dont worry! Not a hair of your head will perish, as long as you endure all that is going to happen for the sake of your souls"
"When these things begin to take place, dont hide but stand up and hold your head up!" Luke 21:28
"Dont even worry what to say if you get arrested as a believer, because I will fill you so much with wisdom that the case will just get thrown out!"
Whos Jesus trying to kid here?
Unfortunately, hes not trying to kid anyone. Jesus is being brutally honest with his disciples. "This is the way its going to be" he tells them. No soft-soaping, no watering down the reality of the struggle that they would face after his death. Jesus knew what the future held for his dearest friends, but he also offered them the reassurance that they would not face any of this alone.
Throughout history, Christians have testified to the same experience of the presence of Christ in the darkest of times. To quote William Barclay "A prison can be like a palace, a scaffold like a throne, the storms of life like summer weather, when Christ is with us."
In the days of the First World War the poet Rupert Brooke wrote these lines
"We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,
And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.
We have built a house which is not for Times throwing,
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.
War knows no power. Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all deaths endeavour;
Safe though all safetys lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all."
At this moment in time, what are your hopes?
Do you see where Im heading?
Our hopes can be so limited. Time and space limit them. Because our "present time" is so comfortable we are happy to limit our hopes and dreams to the boundaries of the present age, and feel no need to look beyond to the "age to come"
Therefore our hopes are often small hopes, easily achievable through our own efforts. We do not have to depend upon God in the way that those early Christians had to. They looked beyond the present age to that time when Gods promises to His people would be fulfilled. It was to be a time of judgement, but God was just. They would be called to account, hearts would be laid bare and secrets revealed.
It was a scary thought, but the Jews looked to it with confidence because they were Gods chosen people and history was on their side. God had never abandoned them before, and they had no reason to think he was about to do so now.
They had a clear vision of the future, and no matter what might happen between the "now" and "then" the vision was strong enough to uphold them. They were convinced that their God had their best interests at heart and were focussed on that moment when He would reign supreme.
We do not have to stand up in court accused of being a Christian and spreading the Gospel. Indeed, its a sad fact that many who call themselves Christians would probably be acquitted in a court of law through lack of evidence.
We do not face persecution, torture or death for our faith. We do not live under an oppressive regime that limits the rights of those who follow a particular religious faith.
We have it very soft.
Now think back to that dreadful day in September when the world changed. Not the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but the destruction of the mightiest symbol of the comfortable lifestyle of the developed world - the World Trade Center.
I imagine that even in the lives of those not directly affected by the terrorist attack in the US there has been a re-evaluation of hopes. All of a sudden, with anthrax scares, a war against terrorism and unrest in the Middle East and beyond, the present does not seem so safe or secure.
Thoughts begin to centre on what will be, rather than the fragility of the present.
Are we persecuted for our faith? No, not in this country. But let me share just a couple of ways in which I believe that our faith is persecuted in this country.
Its persecuted in cities that choose this winter to celebrate Wintermass or Luminos instead of Christmas in order to be politically correct, and Christians do not stand up and protest.
Its persecuted by the failure of Churches and Chapels to work together, where congregations would rather dwindle to nothing than join together. Be sure that those in the world see this and fail to understand. If the Church is so inward looking that it cannot foresee its own decline, how can it look beyond and upwards to a better time?
Its persecuted by those who would water down the Gospel to make it more appealing to a post-modern world that has very few real values. Yes, there is always room for re-interpretation of the Scriptures.
One of the great underlying principles of the Non-Conformist movement is that God should interpret His word to us as individuals as we read the Scriptures, rather than being force-fed the perceived truth. But the truth of Gods redemptive act through the death and resurrection of Jesus - through Grace bringing mankind back into a right relationship with its Creator - this is not something that can be watered down.
Do you follow my train of thought still?
The passage we read from Lukes Gospel suddenly becomes relevant for us.
Look around you, at the walls of this place we worship in today. Theyre just as vulnerable as the walls of Jerusalem. Look at the way that the established Church has declined in recent years, and ask yourselves the reasons why? Why are we no longer relevant to a modern generation? Do we need to change the Gospel to meet their needs... or do we need to live the Gospel in order to show them how relevant it is to the needs of today?
Where is our hope?
Is it that we will survive for another year, keep the slates on the roof and the windows intact or that we look forward to something altogether better? That the present age is nothing compared to that which is to come.
That the pain that the Church feels now is nothing compared with the joy of the "age to come".
Is this the hope that the world outside these walls sees in our lives day by day?
We have only a little information to base that hope upon - the picture language of Revelation and the prophecies of The Old Testament - and its not for us to try and describe judgement and eternity, thats something way beyond our capability. What we have however, is a promise made by God and I for one am inclined to hold onto and believe promises when they come from the author of all truth.
Jesus had a word for those who get disheartened by the state of the Church and the world in "this present age".
"Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man"
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness;
No merit of my own I claim
But wholly trust in Jesus name.
When weary in this earthly race,
I rest on his unchanging grace
In every wild and stormy gale
My anchor holds and will not fail
His vow, his covenant and blood
Are my defence against the flood;
When earthly hopes are swept away
He will uphold me on that day
When the last trumpets voice shall sound
O may I then in him be found!
Clothed in his righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before his throne
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
E. Mote 1797-1874
We need to expand our horizons. We need to look beyond "this present age" and look forward to "the age to come" We need to heed Jesus words concerning "The Day of the Lord" because things could, and probably will, get a lot worse than they are now in the world.
We need to live our lives with the hope that Peter brings to us: -
"But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."
We need to hope. We must hope. We must hope BIG hopes. And most importantly we must live that hope day by day.