Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s video.
As Bishop, I get the chance to speak into the public sphere. I have a tri-weekly column in the Hereford Times and occasionally in other publications. Every other month the BBC kindly invites me to do a 2-minute sermon on the Sunday morning radio. These things are always a challenge. I’m conscious of how secular my audience is likely to be. Most will have no lived experience of church, and many will have little knowledge of even the rudiments of Christian faith. It’s an imaginative leap to help people relate to the language of faith when they in effect speak a different one.
This is particularly true when we come to Advent, which begins on Sunday. The life of Jesus is of necessity historical. It is grounded in place and time. It may be hard to believe, but the resurrection has credible evidence that it happened. In that truth, one can make connections of significance to contemporary life. The miraculous is attested in the scriptures as eye-witness testimony, not metaphor or speculation. But when we come to Advent we are talking the language of eternity. Our secular world is tied to a physicality bound by five senses and with only four dimensions. For our secular friends, there is no spiritual realm beyond this material one. When spirituality is spoken of, it is as a branch of well-being, not an all-encompassing worldview that guides life.
But, if we take Jesus words as credible, we must take seriously his return in glory to judge the world and the new heaven and the new earth prophesied in the New Testament. He did spend quite a lot of time talking about it. Much of his moral discourse is grounded in the looming reality of having to stand before God and give an account of ourselves. The Gospel is largely seen as good news because of the forgiveness and deliverance from that judgement that turning to Christ makes possible.
Unfortunately, Christian silliness has also made these conversations more difficult. At the millennium a large number of people got one-way tickets to Jerusalem, anticipating Christ’s return at the stroke of midnight. Even if that had been prophesied, the change to the Gregorian calendar in the mediaeval period would have made them four years out in any case. Some have read Jesus and Paul’s words about the last days as an invitation to read signs of the times and predict his imminent arrival. But last days is simply a phrase to describe the time between Christ’s first coming and his second, not to point to a particular moment in history. Most of the ‘signs’ interpreted as pointing to something imminent have been marks of human experience forever. It's simply that 24-hour news broadcasts now makes us more aware of what is going on around the world. This has extended to detailed timelines of the rapture and even Hollywood films. A good friend was once asked in all seriousness whether he was a pre or post millennialist with regard to the 1000 year reign of Christ symbolically described in the book of Revelation. He wisely replied that he was a pan-millennialist – he thought it would all pan out alright in the end.
However, we should not use such misinterpretations of scripture to avoid engaging with the framework of history and eternity that undergirds our Christian worldview. Every Sunday we encourage one another with the words, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” The material and time-bound secular world view provides little to compel moral conformity, nor to provide hope. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die is the best advice it can give. But we believe that Christ will come again, history will not continue indefinitely and we look forward to a new heaven and new earth. Not just dying and going to heaven, but the life of eternity so infusing the reality of this world that everything is transformed. It was that view that has allowed Christians throughout history to endure the most terrible privations and suffering, whilst responding in love, not hatred. There are well over a hundred instances of the word hope in the Bible and they appear disproportionately in the book of Job! Christian hope is not based on our circumstances improving, but on our understanding that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Advent hope is about a confidence that God is working his purposes out through the warp and weft of human experience. The credibility of such a view lies in the words of Jesus, whose authority is attested by his resurrection. We do believe and trust in these things. This life is not all there is. There is a spiritual and eternal reality beneath what we see, and faith in Christ is not just to make us feel better in this life but to usher eternity into our hearts as a preparation for eternity with Him in glory.
May we all enter into that Advent hope afresh this year.