Reading Matthew 24: 36-44
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I’m going to play the professional northerner card again, I’m afraid. I just can’t resist it.
Now, some of you out there may think that life in the North of England is just a little bit primitive, a little bit less advanced than down here in the South.
You may have images of people up there munching endlessly on black puddings, admiring their worn-out clogs as the latest in fashion, or trudging morosely down wet, cobbled streets to their grim and tiny terraced houses.
And here’s something that may confirm your suspicions about the North. When I was growing up, we only had a telephone installed in our house when I was all of fifteen. I’d never even used a telephone before then. I don’t think I’d ever touched one.
But we’d got by pretty well without it. Now, one result of not having a phone was that, when we had visitors, they often dropped in unexpectedly, since they had no way of telling us they were coming.
Well, my mother was very house-proud, so the fact that we expected unexpected visitors meant that she kept a very tidy house – which may explain why I could never find anything.
As they say, if you want a tidy house, have lots of visitors. Be ready. Expect visitors, especially unexpected ones.
Jesus in that gospel passage seems to be saying something similar. Be ready; be prepared; be alert. You never know when I’ll be arriving, he says. I am the unexpected one. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It’s actually a train of thought that he repeats a lot in the gospels.
Remember that parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The foolish virgins are locked out of the wedding celebrations because they weren’t ready when the bridegroom arrived. They hadn’t brought enough oil for their lamps. And Jesus tells other variants on that story. Keep awake, he says in Mark’s gospel, lest I find you asleep.
Keep awake, keep alert – Jesus stresses this notion so much that it must be important. We can’t just ignore it.
One of the convictions I’ve formed over the years is that God loves his creation infinitely and eternally. And by definition that must mean that he loves us human beings infinitely and eternally.
Frankly, when it comes to God, nothing less will do. If God doesn’t love his creation infinitely and eternally, then in my book he’s not God. It’s all part of the definition of who and what God is.
Part of this conviction, for me, is that God will never give up on anybody.
Over the years I’ve flirted with universalism. Universalism is the belief that in the final analysis we all get to heaven. That may be a rather imprecise way of putting it but you get the idea.
Now, attractive as I find universalism, I concede that it could conceivably lead to a form of complacency on the following lines: if I’m going to get to heaven anyway, why the need to bother with God right now? So I’ll just indulge my loveless egotism for a few more years. After all, I’m going to get to heaven eventually.
That way of thinking is the very opposite of being spiritually alert, spiritually awake.
So here are a couple of thoughts:
Although I personally am drawn to universalism, I can’t say for sure that it’s true. There are many verses in the Bible that seem to point in my view to universalism. And there are many that don’t – that seem to point in another direction entirely. Purely on a biblical basis, I don’t think we can be sure either way. For whatever reason the Bible seems to speak ambiguously.
And secondly, if we are to be fully united with God, we need to respond to God’s love with a love of our own. God is willing to meet us far more than half way – even within an inch of where we are – but we still need to respond to the extent of merely that one inch if our separation from God is to be overcome.
God, the epitome of courtesy, never forces himself on us. He coaxes but never coerces.
And obviously, in theory at least, it’s possible for a person not to respond in kind to the love of God. And in theory that lack of response may be eternal. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would resist God for all eternity but I suppose it’s possible.
So, reluctantly, I conclude that full-blown, inevitable universalism can’t be quite right.
To my mind, that conclusion makes some sense of those words from Jesus about keeping alert. Union with the divine is not a foregone conclusion. There’s such a state as separation from the divine. It’s very real and it’s not something to be taken lightly.
During what we call the Eucharistic Prayer, later on in this service, we usually say together Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
I don’t have any problem with the first two statements but, to be honest, I’ve always found the Second Coming – Christ will come again – a bit of a head-scratcher. And yet, it seems, that is what our gospel reading today was all about. It’s what Advent Sunday is all about.
And yet, the early church expected the Second Coming to happen imminently and it didn’t. And it hasn’t happened in the 2,000 years since. Periodically, we hear reports of the end of the world but nothing ever happens. We don’t take such reports seriously.
I’m inclined to treat the Second Coming as more metaphorical than literal. I may be wrong, of course, but if we regard it as perhaps more metaphorical than literal then I do think it has something to teach us, which is this:
Jesus hasn’t just ascended into heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father and then forgotten all about us. We may not fully understand the doctrine but, whatever we make of it, at the very least it’s a token, an indicator, that God has not abandoned his world. It’s a token of what I mentioned before – that God loves his creation, always will, and that his love will triumph in the end in ways that are utterly consistent with his infinite love for all creation.
God is the very definition of fidelity. He will not abandon us. Our task is to keep alert, keep awake and make sure that we don’t abandon God.