St Barnabas and St Michael’s 30th October 2011
I wonder how many of you can remember your first day at school? I vaguely remember being shown into what seemed a very large cloakroom and being given peg number 12 to hang my bag on. Or how many of you can remember your first day at work? My first day of work was 23rd August 1990 and I always remember receiving a pay cheque up to the end of the month that afternoon. I think at that point I realised it might not be a bad career being an accountant. Or maybe some of you can remember moving into your first home? The smell of new paint, and new carpets on the floor, and your very own set of keys you promised yourself you would never lose.
All of us have special moments in our life that stay long in the memory. But generally they just don’t happen on their own. They require thought and preparation. You didn’t just turn up at school one day with the teachers waiting outside to welcome you. Your Mum, or perhaps your Dad, had to fill in lots of paperwork and take you to a uniform shop to be fitted out. Or that first job – it didn’t just land on a plate. You had to decide what work you wanted to do, and you had to get an interview. Or your first home – maybe someone put you on a housing list, or you yourself spent hours going through the newspaper looking for the place which was just right for you.
There is saying, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”. If we want to achieve something special, then generally we have to spend time and energy making sure we get what we want. We put the hard hours in at school to pass the exams we need for our job. We spend hours filling in forms so our employer will take us on. We watch the pennies, and scrimp and save, until we can at last get a place of our own. In so many areas of life preparation really is the key.
Jesus’ words in our gospel reading are all about being prepared as well. He uses a rather different kind of picture, of a thief coming in the night. But the message is the same. If you know you’re likely to have a thief about, you get ready. You don’t leave your windows open, or the car unlocked, or switch off the burglar alarm. You make sure everything is as difficult for the thief as possible.
Well, it’s certainly a nice little picture story and one we can all understand. But you may well be sitting there this morning and thinking, why are Jesus’ words so important and why do they matter to me?
To answer that question I want to go right to the basics and make a few simple points.
First of all, Jesus’ words matter because they are the words of a real person. That’s an important thing to say because as W and M grow up they will no doubt meet many people who will tell them they’re wasting their time believing in Jesus. Jesus didn’t really exist and even if He did, He was nothing like the person the Bible describes. That’s a very common point of view and it’s big business trashing the Christian faith, on TV and the Internet, and in books.
Actually, the evidence for Jesus and the type of life He lived is massive, and it doesn’t all come from the Bible. The more people dig up first century Jerusalem or study the writings of the day – written by people who didn’t like Christians – the more people find evidence that this Jesus of Nazareth existed. People may not like the evidence, they may want to believe in different Jesus, but when you look at it, the proof is overwhelming.
And linked with that, it’s also worth saying these are almost certainly the very words of Jesus. Recently I went to the cinema and saw a very grown-up film called Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy – has anybody else seen it? The film was set in 1973 and one reason I liked it so much was that the details were completely true to the year – the cars, the furniture, the technology, and all the rest. I know this because I can just about remember what 1973 was like. So if anyone in the film had, for example, been driving around in a 1980s Mercedes with a mobile phone to the ear, I would have been able to jump up and down and said, “It wasn’t like that”.
Although 1973 may seem a long time ago, it is in fact only 38 years ago, and so there are lots of people who remember what things were like. Now many people reckon the words of Jesus were written down long after the events, that many of His teachings and sayings were made up by the early church. But again if you look at the evidence, you will find that the earliest gospels were only written about 30-40 years after Jesus’ death. And if they had been a pack of lies, plenty of people would have jumped up and down and said, “It wasn’t like that”. The interesting thing is that no-one did. It is astonishing how quickly the gospels became accepted as a true picture of Jesus’ life.
Well, again, you may say to me, that’s all very well, but what difference does that make to me? After all, there were plenty of people around 2000 years ago who left behind important writings. Why is this writing any different and why should I pay it any attention? Well, to answer that, we need to go straight to the heart of the Christian faith, because the central claim of the gospels is the astonishing and very simple claim that Jesus is alive. Now. Here. Today. Right with us.
Again there’s big business saying Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, that the empty tomb was something made up maybe, or the disciples went to the wrong place. But if you stop and look at the evidence, if you go into the history and the archaeology and all the writings of the time, then you begin to see that there is no other explanation for what happened. There is no lost gospel which suggests Jesus’ life ended on the cross, or official report from the Romans telling us what actually happened on that first Sunday morning. Because neither of them exist. And what is so fascinating is that when folk set out to prove the resurrection didn’t happen, time after time they end up as believers. The evidence only points one way, that Jesus was raised to life on the third day, that He appeared to His friends and He ascended into heaven.
What’s even more astonishing was that Jesus Himself said this was what was going to happen. It wasn’t that God changed His mind once Jesus died and looked for a way out of the situation. Nor was it that all the laws of physics and biology suffered a momentary blip. Jesus Himself told His followers in advance what was going to happen. As we read in Matthew 16:21: From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. In other words Jesus’ death on the cross and rising to new life was always part of God’s plan to rescue humankind, to rescue you, to rescue me. I, for one, cannot grasp why God chose to act in this way. I am only grateful that He did.
So here is Jesus a real person who tells His followers in advance that He is going to be raised to life. And incredibly, that is exactly what happens. Now if someone tells you something extraordinary and it happens, don’t you begin to pay rather more attention to what else he or she might be telling you?
For example, in our passage this morning Jesus says that one day we will meet with Him. He doesn’t say when, and we wonder exactly how this may happen. But I suggest we all better start believing His words. Because if He said that He would be raised from the dead, and if that happened, then I have reason to trust every other word that Jesus said. I may not want to. I may happier leading my own kind of life my way. I may not want to think what would happen if I accepted Jesus was alive and had authority over my life. But ignoring what He says is not an option. One day Jesus will return and we will all meet with Him.
So will you be ready? That’s the simple question all of us need to think about today. Because our two readings – from Matthew’s gospel and from the book of Revelation – tell us there will be two possible outcomes on that day. For some, as our reading from Revelation makes clear, it will be a glorious future: Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. But that won’t be the future for everyone. Jesus Himself makes clear in our reading from Matthew that some will be left behind, excluded from God’s presence forever.
We may not be happy with these words of Jesus. We may want to change His message to say that everyone in the end will get to be in heaven. But if Jesus’ words are trustworthy and true, then we are not at liberty to do that. After all, if a policeman stops us and tells us there’s a blockage up ahead and we can’t get to where we’re going, we don’t ignore what the policeman is saying because we don’t like his message. We plan, we act, we change our course.
In the same kind of way, if Jesus has any kind of authority over our life, then we need to plan how we are going to respond to His message today. And the key question we need to ask is this: what is the difference between the people described in Revelation and the people Jesus describes in Matthew’s gospel? The answer is a rather strange sentence in Revelation 7:14: These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Now the writer here is using poetic language, and it may seem very strange to our ears. But when you strip away all the complicated images and look at the core of what he is saying, his words come down to two essential truths.
First of all, these people have accepted that Jesus has died in their place for their sins. That’s what this rather gruesome phrase the blood of the Lamb means. You don’t get to enjoy eternal life with God by doing lots of good deeds, or pretending you’re perfect, or even by being spiritual. You get to enjoy eternal life by recognising you don’t deserve it, that you have done wrong, that you are in need of a Saviour, and by asking Jesus to be that Saviour.
And secondly, these people have made a public confession of their faith. That’s what the phrase they have washed their robes implies. You don’t decide to follow Jesus and then keep your decision quiet. You make a public declaration of your choice. To begin with, by deciding to come to baptism in front of the whole church and saying that you turn to Christ. That’s what M is doing today. She’s making an incredibly brave decision and she needs all your support and love and prayers as she makes this step.
But of course baptism is only the beginning. It’s just the start of a long journey of following Jesus wherever He leads, doing whatever He calls you to do, even when others make fun of you, or think you’re mad, or tell you not to waste your time. These people in the book of Revelation had even been prepared to die for their faith. That’s why John says they have come out of the great tribulation. Now that’s not a possibility that W or M, I hope, will ever have to face. But it is the choice that many believers in many other parts of the world have had to make. And they have made it willingly, because they have accepted Jesus’ words and considered it the most important thing in their life, to be ready when Jesus comes.
So what about you? Do you want to be ready to meet with Jesus? If so, then ask yourself what Jesus’ death on the cross and the empty tomb means for you. You may never have thought about them before. You may need to look again at the evidence and consider what it might mean for you to take a step of faith. But can I ask you to think about making it, so you will be prepared for that glorious future.
And don’t just say you believe in Jesus, do something about it. Jesus tells us clearly in this passage there are practical steps all of us can do to get ready for Him. If it’s relevant to you, think about being baptised or confirmed. But don’t stop there. Be willing to let Jesus be your Lord, to have authority over your life, and let Him show you the way to live for Him. It may be a bold choice. It may be a difficult choice. But in the end it is the right choice. So that when He comes to claim His own, He will turn to you and say: Well done, good and faithful servant! (Matthew 25:21).