A New Church Day Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
June 19th 2011
Matthew 24: 29-31: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Revelation 21:5: “Then he who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’.”
The Lord and Nicodemus
From what we read in the Gospels it was obviously rare for Jesus to meet one on one with people. He did on several occasions but it was the exception rather than the rule. Usually we read of crowds thronging Him, people crowding around Him, groups following Him but only very occasionally of one on one encounters and conversations.
One such meeting was with Nicodemus, one of the most powerful and influential people of the time, described as being “a ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin which was a legislative body overseeing the administration of the Jewish legal and justice system. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious “Party” which was very much committed to preserving all that was distinctive about Judaism. And whilst that had its good side it also had its down side in that, as we also know from the Gospels and from Jesus encounters with Pharisees, it descended into suffocating legalism and nit-picking.
Nicodemus, clearly, was a searcher. He, however, obviously saw it to be prudent to come to Jesus “by night”. Reputation, what others might think of him, and how such a meeting might get him into hot water with his Sanhedrin colleagues, obviously enough was on his mind.
It was during the course of this meeting that Jesus spoke of the need to be “born again”.
This is for sure that Nicodemus didn’t understand at all, at first, what Jesus meant by this. But we do.
To be born again is to become other than what by inherited nature we incline to be and to do.
To be born again is to shift our focus from self-centredness to other people centredness.
To be born again is to re-order what are our priorities, shifting them away from what is material and external to what is spiritual and internal.
To be born again is to become regenerate.
What we also know, from what we are taught, and also on the basis of what experience shows us and brings home to us, is that regeneration is a process. There is nothing overnight about it. There is no instant salvation.
Regeneration starts with us becoming aware of the Lord’s teachings, values and commandments. Then follows the need to honestly and bravely examine ourselves, not just what we actually do and say, but what we would do and say if it was safe to do so. Next we have to be prepared to change our thinking; to “reform” our understanding and whole approach to things. And what follows, of necessity, is a heartfelt commitment to carry out into life the ways of the Lord.
That a process is involved is hinted at even in the Old Testament where Moses is recorded as warning the ancient people of Israel that it would only be “little by little” that they would conquer and take over the Promised Land. (Exodus 33:20).
And we have it again, held up to us, in so much of what Jesus Himself taught. An excellent example is in Mark Chapter 4, the whole thing about gradualness, that regeneration is very much a step by step process. Quoting,
“And He said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself, first the stalk, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” (Verses 26-28)
Notice that – first, then, next.
Faith: also a development and acquired gradually
Like regeneration, faith too is also something that develops gradually, step by step. Indeed, regeneration and the development of faith go hand in hand. They are two sides of one coin.
Faith is about understanding, insights, and deep, heartfelt, appreciation of the Lord; of His work in our lives; of our need of His strength and guidance.
Where faith is concerned we move from what is external to what is internal. It is always the way and it cannot be otherwise.
On first reading the Word, and coming to faith, we think how much better the world would be if only other people (!!) would follow through with its ideals and principles. Then we come to see that it is up to us to do so and that it is this which matters.
How all of us, as young people, first see the Lord is a whole lot different from how we come to see Him from years of working through issues.
Early faith is our honouring the Lord as the Babe of Bethlehem or the man of Galilee.
But regeneration is behind our moving to a much more real and living sense of the Lord and faith in Him.
I commend to you teaching in the book of the Writings, “True Christian Religion” which discussed faith stages. It talks there of faith borrowed or persuasive faith as compared to the later development of faith which is truly one’s very own.
The rich young ruler: an example
In its way, there is no better example of this movement in faith than the rich young man who came to Jesus, anxious about what else he needed to do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17)
For all that he had kept the Commandments he was told by Jesus to go away and “sell” all that he had. He was too self-interested still. Too much, still, in faith of a very external, surface, type; too caught up in merit and the idea of earning his way into the kingdom.
He was, it is said, “sad” at what Jesus told him to do and went away “grieved”.
And as he did so he cannot but have been in turmoil. His world had been turned upside down. The assumptions he had made were all undone.
It is like people who have been brought up to believe that evil attracts punishment and good attracts blessing; that it is the way it is and the way it should be.
In the real world it doesn’t seem to work out like that and so the believer is catapulted into inner turmoil. Why? How can it be? ‘Life is not fair!’
It is exactly this turmoil and questioning that is captured in the words recorded here in Matthew Chapter 24, about famines, pestilences, earthquakes and tribulation. Events happen which really shake our convictions and, simple as they have been. We feel a deep down rattling of our foundations. We hunger for answers. The love and faith, meant by the sun and moon, which previously shone for us, fail and withdraw their light. The stars which once guided us fall from heaven.
But as we work through these times a much more real sense of the Lord breaks in. And this is His second coming.
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
The holy city, New Jerusalem
The Lord, so seen; so much more insightfully now; a new sense of the world; a deeper understanding of Him, of His Divine Providence, of His care over human affairs, of His purposes for us; a new appreciation of the underlying truth within His Word; opens up and introduces us to a new era in our spiritual life and development. And this is what is held up to us and represented by, the holy city, New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.
The vision of the holy city is the Lord’s promise of what can be. It is the high point of the Bible; of the Word. It is the goal to which the Lord has been leading us all the way through our regeneration.
And it is about beauty and wonder, serenity and peacefulness, freedom from anxiety, a sense of protection security. It is also about openness and transparency. It is about the Lord being Himself the light of our lives; and about spiritual values – the tree of life – being the centre around which all else revolves.
This point is important, that the holy city is the high watermark of the Bible. All things lead to it. It is the goal of our creation. It is the Lord’s focus in all His dealings with us.
This is so with each of us, individually. It is, also, His focus with humankind collectively.
And, as with us, coming to it is emphatically a step by step process; one stage or age at a time; each having to be worked through and the whole process impossible to hurry.
Most recently of all, it involves, and has involved, the working through of very external approaches and understanding of things, even of so much that is said in the Bible, to something so much more internal.
History shows us how the Bible has been misapplied; its teachings falsified and externalized; its real meaning lost; it values degraded.
For example, it is 50 years this year since I first encountered apartheid in South Africa, a racially prejudiced philosophy buttressed as it was by a mischievous interpretation of a story in the Bible.
Then I recall my very first pastorate, a joint pastorate in the coal mining districts of northern England. At the time I didn’t have a car and used buses, two in fact, to travel from one to the other. At the rendezvous point there was an ancient church, its graveyard along the front wall, which I, from in the bus, could look down on. And it is seared into my memory, that along the fence there was a grave containing the bodies of 14 children as young as 5 all of whom had perished in a mining disaster 200 years ago. And yet the employment of such children was endorsed and encouraged on the basis of a false interpretation of yet another part of the Bible.
What, too, of the subjugation of women stoutly maintained on the basis of various Bible stories and passages?
Once again, it’s all about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light and the stars falling from heaven.
But new light is flooding the world, post Last Judgement, and captured as it is in the Heavenly Doctrines. The Lord is being seen anew in His Second Coming: and there are promising signs of a new world and a new spiritual Age breaking in.
We see restlessness and, in our part of the world, rampant secularism and materialism. But within and behind it all is often disenchantment and despair and a deep hunger for something substantial and for a believable God. It’s the earthquakes and famines on a collective scale
The holy city, new Jerusalem
The Lord doesn’t play games with us.
He doesn’t promise what will never be.
The holy city, new Jerusalem, captures for us this new spiritual Age dawning over the world; an Age of fairness and justice; of racial equality and respect; of spiritual richness and healing; of God become truly visible on the clouds of heaven; God in His Divine human; the Lord in His Second Coming, understood and appreciated, reasonably and rationally.
In the little book, “The Last Judgement”, towards the end, there is a Chapter titled, “The state of the World and of the Church hereafter”, looking to the future as it does. It begins,
“The state of the world hereafter will be just the same as it has been hitherto, for that great change which has taken place in the spiritual world brings about no change in the natural world so far as the outward form is concerned. Wherefore, there will be henceforth civil affairs as before; there will be times of peace, treaties and wars as before, and the other things belonging to societies in general and in particular.”
And then it continues,
“I have spoken with angels about the varying state of the Church hereafter. They have said they have no knowledge of things to come, because such knowledge belongs to the Lord alone. But they said they do know that the servititude and captivity in which people of the Church have been hitherto, has been removed, and that, now from his restored liberty he is able, if he so wishes, the better to understand interior truths and thus to become internal.” (Paragraphs 73 & 74).
Whilst the timing is in the Lord’s wise hands, nevertheless the scene is set and the opportunities are opened up for us.
For sure, we can’t take on responsibility for the world. But we can do our small part, where we are and amongst whom we move and have contact with, to make the holy city just that little bit more real and evident in our midst and in this world.
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
And he that sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.”‘
Matthew Chapter 24: verses 3 to 14 and 29 to 31
Revelation Chapter 21: verses 1 to 5
Arcana Caelestia 3900 & 9405
“The Lord’s Coming does not consist, as the letter has it, in His appearing once again in the world, but in His Presence within everyone. He is present there as often as the Gospel is preached and that which is holy is contemplated.”
(This arises from the fact) “that the Word is Divine Truth emanating from the Lord, and what emanates from the Lord is the Lord Himself. Consequently those who read the Word and at the same time look to the Lord, acknowledging that all truth and good come from Him, and none whatever from themselves, receive enlightenment; they see truth and perceive good from the Word…This is what accounts for the holiness of the Word, and also for the Lord’s Coming to and presence with those who, as they read the Word, have in mind the Lord and the neighbour, and not themselves. He comes to them and is present with them because they allow themselves to be raised by the Lord into the light of heaven.”