St Michael’s, June 14th 2009
Introducing the Big Picture
Have you ever seen those programmes on TV where you watch an artist at work? A few years ago there was a series hosted by Rolf Harris where three artists were chosen to paint a celebrity, and at the end the celeb-rity took home the picture he or she liked best. But what made the programme so fascinating was not the end product, or the person being painted, but the way each artist started their painting. A dollop of colour there, a few brushstrokes here, maybe a pencil sketch somewhere else, and you looked at it, and thought, how on earth were they ever going to make a picture of this? Well, I’m no artist, and maybe if you are, the whole process is perfectly simple. But to me there is something mysterious, something almost magical about the way a whole portrait emerges from what starts out as a few seemingly random splodges on a blank canvas.
I was reminded of this TV series – I’m afraid I can’t remember its name – as I began to look at our readings from Mark and from Romans. Because it seems to me that what both Jesus and Paul are talking about in two very different ways are precisely about the big picture that will be revealed at the end of time. And although we don’t often spend much time as a church thinking about this big picture, I am glad that this morning we have an opportunity to do so. Because, as I hope to show, what we believe about our ultimate destiny has an effect on what we do now. If, for example, we believe that the whole of life is a series of random uncon-nected events, then in the end we have no real purpose and no real hope. But if we believe that these random events will one day connect up and be seen to have a meaning, then we have a reason to live confidently in light of that day. And that is what Jesus and Paul both affirm in our passages today, as they talk about things being disclosed, being brought out into the open, being revealed. They are referring to that moment in time, when if you will, the veil is removed from human history and at last we understand something of God’s wonderful plans and purposes.
So what is, exactly, will we see on that day?
The coming day
Well, first and foremost we will see Jesus in all His glory. That is what Jesus means in our reading from Mark when He asks what seems at first sight a slightly odd question: Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? Well, yes, of course you put it on a stand so that everyone can benefit from its light. And one day that will also be true of Jesus. At the time when He spoke these words He was an obscure preacher living in a not very important part of the Roman empire, and you might well ask why the Son of God chose to come to earth in this way. But whatever the reason – and it’s all to do with Him becoming one of us and sharing in our humanity – this same Jesus will one day appear in such a way that every eye will see Him, and He will be revealed in all majesty, might and splendour.
How do we know this to be true? The simple answer comes from the cross and empty tomb. Because if it is true that Jesus died and rose again, then we already have the proof that Jesus has defeated death, and that one day His victory over sin and death and evil will be complete. At the moment it is hidden, it is concealed, and can only be known by faith, but then it will be obvious to all that Jesus is Lord.
So the question is: are you looking forward to that day? I guess if you’re anything like me, then you have a mixture of reactions. On the one hand, it will be so good to see Jesus face to face, and to know that my faith and trust in Him as Lord and Saviour will at last receive its reward. But on the other, I know that this light that will shine for all to see will also show up the dark places in my life, and the things I would rather wish I could keep hidden. And that’s not a comfortable thought. It reminds me that my confidence on that day will not be on my own achievements, or on my own efforts, but simply on the grace and mercy of Jesus whose blood alone can cover all my sins. Because the plain fact of the matter – no matter how much we try to avoid it or play it down – is that no-one will be able to stand before the throne of Jesus and sing His praises unless they have already in their earthly existence trusted Him for eternal life.
And this leads on to the second point, that on that day we will see the kingdom of God in all its fullness. This is the point of the two further parables that Jesus tells about the seed growing secretly, and the mustard seed planted in the ground. Now they are small, insignificant things, but in the fullness of time – God’s time – they will be ready for the full harvest. In other words, these parables serve to remind us that, despite ap-pearances, God’s rule and authority is gradually advancing and extending until one day it will fill the whole earth. There will no longer be any injustice, or any inequality, any hunger or any want. Why not? Because God’s kingdom will have come on earth as it is in heaven, and Jesus will be Lord of all.
This does not mean however that little by little the problems of this world will slowly disappear, or that the coming of God’s kingdom will happen painlessly. That image of a sickle put to the harvest in verse 29 is an image of judgement, and indeed the only other reference to such an implement in the New Testament is in Revelation 14 which describes a frankly terrifying picture of the whole earth being harvested in the fury of God’s wrath. Now I don’t believe that either Jesus or the writer of Revelation, John the apostle, used the im-age of the sickle to inspire fear and terror in their listeners, and I for one am not about to start preaching hell-fire and brimstone. But the image of harvest – and it’s a common one throughout both the Old and New Testaments – is meant to make us realise there is a serious and important decision all of us need to make as to whether we want to be part of God’s kingdom and whether we want to live His values of justice and right-eousness and truth. Because at the end of the day the evidence of our saving faith in Jesus will be the fruit we bear in our lives. Nowhere does Jesus encourage the attitude that it doesn’t matter what we do, only so long as we believe. Our actions as well as our words have to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, if we want to be counted part of His kingdom.
And alongside the coming of God’s kingdom we will also see, thirdly, a new heaven and a new earth. That is what Paul is referring to when he says in our passage from Romans that the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. Because at the time when Jesus is revealed in all His glory, and His authority extends over every person and every place, there is a real sense in which the whole of creation will be transformed. No longer will it be in bondage to decay, no longer will there be sickness and disease and suffering, but in ways far beyond our comprehension there will be a wonderful and perfect new reality which will encompass every part of the natural order. How will this come to pass exactly, I cannot say. But it is the promise we find in Scripture and we can sure that as God’s word it can be trusted absolutely.
Now I know that in some quarters it is fashionable to knock what the Bible says about creation, to say that science has somehow disproved long-established Christian truths. But to pit science against the Bible in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand the purposes of both. The purpose of science is to tell us how the world is as it is today. So, for example, the physicist will do this by talking about particles and forces, the chemist by molecules and structures, the biologist by natural processes of selection, and we need to rejoice at the discoveries each one of them has made. But there is a limit to what science can do, and it is this; it cannot explain why creation is as it is today. That is where the Bible comes in, and particularly passages like the one from Romans. Because it tells us that creation is not simply the result of some unplanned event that took place millions of years ago, but the work of a creator who planned and shaped it. Not only that but the present defects and deficiencies of the world around us are in some deep and mysterious way also under the control of this same creator who will one day free it from its imperfections and make it new and perfect.
When will that day be? According to Paul when the sons of God are revealed. And who are these sons of God? The correct answer is those who have believed and trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Yes, I know that in one sense everyone is a child of God because they are His handiwork. But we are only truly adopted as sons and daughters of our loving Heavenly Father when we put our trust in Him, when, as we were thinking last week, we open ourselves to His grace, receive His Holy Spirit, and recognise Christ’s death on the cross for us. That is why Paul’s words here also serve as a solemn reminder to us that on the day when creation is made new, there will also be a great separation, of those who belong to Christ and those who do not. The former will be kept safe by the cross of Jesus, the latter will not. The former will re-joice in the splendour and majesty of their king, the latter will not. The former will rise to life eternal around the throne of God, the latter will not.
So the question I have to ask is this – which group will you be part of on that day? Because if what both Jesus and Paul are saying is true, then we have to realise there is both good news and bad news in their teaching. Good news, that if we come humbly and trusting to Jesus, then we have a salvation that is secure and certain. But bad news, that if we reject His offer of new life, then we run the very real danger of missing out on eternal life and being separated from our Heavenly Father forever. Now I wish in many ways I could airbrush that bad news out, and I know that’s what many Christians try to do. But to present only the good news is to paint only the half the picture, to make the claims of Jesus Christ something that we can take or leave as we think fit. And that is not an option either Jesus or Paul give us.
Now I realise what I’m saying this morning is kind of heavy, but actually the purpose behind both our read-ings is neither to scare us or leave us down and dejected, but to provide us who believe in Jesus Christ with great encouragement and hope. What do I mean by this?
Three grounds for hope
Well, to begin with, our readings should give us hope for our work as a church. Because if what we do as a church is kingdom work, if our aim is to live out the good news of Jesus and be the body of Christ, then we have an assurance that our work is not in vain. Yes, we may seem a small, insignificant group of people in a parish of 5000. Yes, what we can offer an area with so many obvious needs and problems can seem to be small. Yes, we may appear to be making very little difference to the lives of so many people. But then the whole image Jesus uses of the seed reminds us that God’s kingdom work is so often small, unseen, hidden. The kingdom of God is not about numbers, or the size of your church building, but, as we thought earlier, about justice and righteousness and truth. And if our focus is on these things, and on proclaiming Jesus as Lord, then we can have confidence that our work here and now is of eternal value.
Secondly, knowledge of that coming day should also lead us to have hope in our present sufferings. Paul writes in Romans 8:18, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. And before we jump up and down and say that Paul has no idea of what we are going through, let us remember that Paul himself was deeply acquainted with suffering. We know for a start he had some ongoing painful illness that he described as a thorn, which he prayed for the Lord to take away. He also suffered great hardships as he met all kinds of danger on his travels. And then there were the beat-ings, the floggings, the imprisonment he encountered because he refused to stop preaching the good news of Christ. Paul knew all about suffering. And yet because he knew that one day Jesus would be revealed in all His glory, that the whole of creation would be wonderfully and miraculously transformed, he knew that even the extreme circumstances he suffered now would not be the final word, that there would be a future awaiting him that would be far greater than anything he could ever imagine – if only he remained faithful to Christ.
And thirdly, knowledge of that coming day, should lead us to have hope in our prayers. You see, God hasn’t just set a day when all things will be made new and left us to get on with it. He has given us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, to fill us with His peace and His love, and to give us the assurance of His presence. Because there is no doubt about it, sometimes living the Christian life is hard. We may be frustrated or dis-couraged by the lack of growth in our church, for example, or we may find hard to hang on to our faith in the face of great suffering and sorrow. But, and this is the real encouragement, the struggle is not ours to bear alone. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Isn’t that a wonderful assurance? That the Holy Spirit who lives in the hearts of our every believer is not only there to comfort us, to encourage us, but also, as one commentator puts it, “effectively prays to the Father on our behalf throughout the difficulties and uncertainties of our lives here on earth” (Douglas Moo)
The hope that we have as Christians, you see, is not “pie in the sky when you die” or a nice story we could wish was true. It is solid, tangible hope that should give us assurance and strength even as we work for the kingdom of God, as we face all kind of trails and tribulations, and as we come before the Lord as we pray. So how will you respond to this hope?
Jesus says in our gospel reading, Consider carefully what you hear, he continued. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And the key to understanding what Jesus is saying is to realise he isn’t talking about material goods, or wealth, or prosperity. He is talking about our response to the good news of God’s coming kingdom. Because if we come to Christ with humility and faith and joy, then one day we will be welcomed into His presence with open arms, and we will be with Him forever. But if we decide we want to manage without this good news, that it’s all too much bother and effort to live as people of the kingdom, then one day even what we have will be taken from us.
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear … What exactly is it that Jesus is saying to you this morning?