The universe as we know it is heading towards God’s new creation
Peter Casey, 28 November 2021
Jeremiah 33: 14–16; 1 Thessalonians 3: 9–13; Luke 21: 25–36
The first Sunday in Advent. I don’t know what you were expecting when you came in. What I would have expected might have been perhaps the start of the journey towards Bethlehem, or the great forerunners of Jesus, the prophets or patriarchs whose candle we lit today, or perhaps preparing ourselves for Christmas. But what do we get in today’s readings? The second coming, or the last judgement, or the day of the Lord – it can be called all those things – and we get some of the most difficult images and language in the New Testament.
The images and the language are hard partly because they sometimes seem to mix prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, which actually happened in AD 70, with ones about the second coming itself. But they are hard mainly because they are talking about things we cannot hope to understand in detail: the end of space and time as we know them, when the whole of creation is transformed. The images we have in our Bible are not literal descriptions – how could they be? – and they draw on other ideas and images that were well known to people of the time. It’s rather as though we tried to talk about these things using the language of starships or superheroes, which for us would carry their own cultural background.
So I’m not going to try to offer a detailed and literal reading of those images, that language. That would have been a mistake in any century. Rather, I want to suggest what those words may mean to us at the beginning of Advent.
The first thing is that creation has a destination. It’s not, as some civilisations have believed, endlessly circular. It is not, as our cosmologists might tell us, ultimately futile, doomed eventually to an end – by fire or ice – which no life could survive on this planet or any other. No. The universe as we know it is heading towards God’s new creation.
And this makes God’s coming in Christ, that birth at Bethlehem, not simply a random point in the billions of years of creation so far, but a key moment, a turning point, in a continuing story.
But there is something else. The God of that first coming at Bethlehem and the God of the second coming are the same God. That baby is sovereign Lord of the universe, the God of justice and righteousness. One thing that happens in ordinary human justice, the kind we see in our law courts, is that light is thrown on what has happened. And now here before us in Bethlehem is, as John says, the true light of the world. In him and what he does for us, what he gives up for our sake, we see our own shabby motives and actions – and we all have them somewhere – fully exposed. And it’s only when this happens, when we know our own need, that we can seek and find God’s help to change.
But another important thing that judgement and justice do is to put things right. In our own human courts, a good judge will restore property to its rightful owners, the people who have been cheated and oppressed will have their rights, and so on. We cherish the words of the Magnificat about putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek. That justice is what we are promised, that is what we look to in that final judgement.
But the snag is that we know that none of us appears at that final judgement with a cast iron case in our own right. The light exposes something in each of us. But let me say again, the God of the first coming and the God of the second coming are the same God, the same Christ. The God who will renew creation is the one who loved us enough to become one of the weakest on earth, eventually to die a painful death for us, and along the way to talk again and again about mercy and love for those who may have felt themselves furthest from those things. That is who we will meet when he comes to make all things right and new.
The God who will renew creation is the one who loved us enough to become one of the weakest on earth.
And one more thing about this great renewal of creation. If we, if you and I, matter to God now, as I believe we do, then can we ever cease to matter to him? When he eventually calls time on this created world, whenever that happens, in whatever way it happens, our own lives will not be doomed to futility. Surely there will be a place for us, transformed like the rest of creation, in that new world we can scarcely imagine. He has both the love and the power to do this.
And that is why that second coming, the last judgement, the day of the Lord, with all the strange words and pictures that surround it, is part, not of our fear, but of our Advent hope, yours and mine. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.