Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Mark 8:27-33
One of the things that causes the most confusion, when reading the Old Testament prophets, is when we ask “what time was this prophecy referring to?”. It’s a problem that we tend to have somewhat hidden from us in the advent season, as we read short snippets of the prophets speaking words that are relatively easy to identify with Jesus – and there’s a sort of unspoken implication that Jesus is the object of the rest of the prophecies as well.
But when you read these passages in their wider context the story becomes more complicated. Sometimes the prophet seems to be speaking of current affairs, sometimes of a time soon to come, sometimes of a more distant future, and sometimes of the end-times. The language is often seemingly deliberately ambiguous and hard to pin down.
But I think this confusion comes from us treating Old Testament prophecies as if they were essentially history told in advance. Whereas in truth the prophets were speaking much less about the particulars of history than they were speaking about the nature and character of God, and about the relationship between God and the people of God, and the peoples of God’s world.
Which is why many prophecies are deliberately unspecific about times and dates and places and people; because the particular events of history are understood as illustrations of the way that God is with the world; the prophets draw attention to those patterns and use them to teach people about God and what it means to follow God.
So the Old Testament prophets again and again speak of fall and exile and disaster as a consequence of the people’s failure to serve God; but even more strongly speak of redemption and hope and reconciliation as a consequence of the unquenchable love of God.
And I suspect that Jesus is doing the same when he speaks in Mark chapter 8. These words have been read throughout history as referring to contemporary events – from the fall of Jerusalem onwards, Christians have seen Jesus’ words – the distress of the nations, fear and foreboding, the powers shaken – in the events that have shaken their world. And throughout the ages Christians have heard in these words warning, encouragement, and instruction.
And so we read them today. And we read them in the light of our times, our troubles, our fears.
Most of us here have been fortunate enough to live most of our lives in times of peace. Since the end of the second world war – which some of you recall, though it now lies seventy years in the past, we have, for the most part, been able to live in Australia in a time of unprecedented peace and security. Though there have always been conflicts, and Australia has been involved in many of them, they mostly haven’t reached deeply into our lives. Of course there are those who have been effected by conflicts overseas, who have lost loved ones, and I don’t for a moment want to minimise the personal stories of tragedy, but as a society, as a whole, we have been blessed to live in peace.
But as we moved into the 21st century that has changed. And the world that our children, or grandchildren, are growing up in is very different. Starting, perhaps, in September 2001, and recently reignited by the attacks in Paris, we have known the fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, we have seen our powers shaken, we have seen distress among the nations as we face the rise of a militant, extremist strand of Islam, and the threat of terrorist attack that seems able to reach right into our cities and strike at unprepared, civilian targets.
And Jesus’ words for those who faced the fall of Jerusalem echo through the ages to us today. “When you see these things,” he said, “stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near…. When you see these things taking place you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”
And throughout history people have taken these words to mean that the troubles of their day were signs of the end times, that the second coming, Jesus’ return, was at hand. But given the observation that each generation before who have predicted the end times have been proven wrong, we might revisit these words in the light of what we have said about prophecy: that it is not so much about specific events as it is about a pattern, about the way of God in the world.
The rapid growth in the early Church corresponded to times of persecution and troubles; the first explosion in the numbers of the faith recorded in historical documents outside of the scriptures came in time of plague – when Christians responded not by fleeing, but by staying to care for the sick.
And of course today the fastest growing Christian faith communities are not in traditionally Christian countries like ours, but in China, in Indonesia, in India – in places where the faith has been supressed, persecuted, outlawed.
When you see these things, you know that the Kingdom of God is near. For this seems to be the way that the Kingdom of God has worked – most visible not in times of ease but in times of pain, conflict, disaster.
It is seen in the Bonheoffer’s and Schindler’s of the world, facing the rise of evil with courage, compassion, and decisive action.
It is seen in the welcome given by so many in our community to refugees fleeing from the conflicts of the world, in the welcome we are offering to Syrian refugees in Australia at this time.
It is seen even in the bravery of those who stand with the tradition of Islam against the violent distortion of faith, in stories of Malala and the many others who continue to work for education and justice within the communities of their faith.
It is seen in Christians sharing the good news of Jesus, sharing the stories of hope and reconciliation, the stories of justice and restoration.
The story of advent begins in a time when the people of God were oppressed by a pagan power. It tells the story of a baby forced to flee to a distant land by the violence of a corrupt state. It tells the story of the way that a people who were seeking military restoration were offered instead a different way.
Stand up, Jesus tells us, when you see these things happening. Because the Kingdom of God is near. Hold up your heads, and tell again the story of Christmas; a story of refugees and persecution, of suffering and slaughter; but in the end a story which is not one of fear, but of the triumph of hope, of justice, of righteousness, of love, of reconciliation, of God.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but this story will never pass away, not until all these things are done and we come at last to the final fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.