Many of you will know, I have been blessed on November 10 with the birth of a beautiful little girl. After three boys it was extra special to see Jael come into the world – at our home – and being so lovingly received by her older brothers. It is a wonderful time. At first the house is full of restlessness and questions. When will it be born? What will it be? Will everything go well? How will the children respond? Is everything ready? Yet when the heavy labour is over and a small girl is laying in her little crib, the house is filled with rest and peace. And many people come to share in the joy and new hope such a child brings.
And yet questions remain: What will become of her in this evil world? Will it not be a life of suffering? What is my true hope for her future? Is it primarily focused on the present age or should I just be focussed on the age to come? So it is our hope for the future, and how it relates to our attitude in the present, I want to speak to you about.
Jeremiah lived in a time of suffering, deprivation and war. His Lamentations describe the utter horrors experienced by the people in Jerusalem. So much so, that the women killed their children, asking the Lord: “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” The mothers killed the symbols of their hope for a better future. And in the midst of those horrors, Jeremiah pointed the people to their hope by pointing to the birth of a child.
I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.
In the midst of the horrors, Jeremiah was pointing the people to a better future. Let us notice a few things about it.
- The hope Jeremiah puts before the people is not to escape the earth to a life after death in a disembodied heaven. It is rather a hope very much for this world we live in. He tells them that God will raise up a righteous Branch. This is the language of resurrection and of renewal. And this renewal and resurrection has already started with Jesus Christ, who is the Branch. “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” This implies others will follow, those who are Christ’s at His coming, and at the end even the earth and heaven will be renewed, as pictured at the end of the book of Revelation.
- it is a hope for a kingdom with a king who shall execute justice and righteousness, thus creating true peace. As we sang in the psalm, righteousness and peace kiss each other. God will set things right in the world, will end the injustice. This is one part of what we call the Day of Judgment. The poor, the supressed people of God, the refugees, the outcast, the abused, the little children will be helped. And He will put an end to the money-grabbing and abuse. That is why we can look forward to the Day of Judgment.
- This future is focused on the person of the King. He is called the Lord our Righteousness. The Church has always rightfully applied this name to our Saviour, and has thus reaffirmed the divinity of Jesus. It is God himself who is king in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Christ, has now received the Kingdom and all power and authority has already been given to him. But He will come, speaking peace to his saints and righteousness will go before him. And as Jeremiah foresees he has begun and will bring all God’s children into that eternal and universal Kingdom of justice and peace.
Thus the Lesson points our hope in the birth of a child who would reign as King. Our journey through Trinity Season has brought us to the King of Glory, and it forms the introduction to the Season of Advent, preparing us for His birth as the start of a new church year.
The Gospel of today fits this message. The lesson gives us a promise, but the Gospel gives us a clear picture of what that Kingdom of Jesus looks like. Jesus lifts up his eyes and sees the people who are hungry. He asks Philip where we will get bread to feed these people. And the hope comes again from a child with five loaves and two fishes. And Jesus feeds the people. The whole world is hungry. Some are literally starving. All are hungry for a word from above: an end to the suffering and injustice. And Jesus cares! He is not indifferent about the suffering in this world. He will feed the people. Bread for everyone!
This life or the life to come
So what does this mean for us today? Should we focus our hope on the present age, building a kingdom under the motto: bread for everyone? Or should we just accept the evil in the world, and hope for the age to come. Let us look at them both.
- If our hope is focussed on building the kingdom in this world, we would do all to make it better for our children. That is good. But the danger is we change the Church into an international development organisation based on development goals, the spread of human rights and action against climate change, rather than the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will become a political pressure group willing to use government power to reach our desired ends. However good in itself, it is solely focussed on a material end. We forget that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world.
- Well, what if we focus mainly on the age to come. Well, we will be focussed on Jesus and not solely on a material end. But there is a danger we will accept the evil in this world, and become lethargic. Our faith becomes a blanket to comfort ourselves, as we look forward to escape this world to what we call heaven. So it doesn’t inspire us to good works and a real holy life. It is a faith with one simple answer for every problem: convert to Jesus and all will be well! Even though human experience shows otherwise.
Brothers and sisters, neither view will do. The true Gospel of the Kingdom is focussed on the person of Jesus Christ, the King. We cannot replace Him with any material end, however noble. He must be personally present. But it is also not a hope disconnected from this world, it is a hope for this world. Jesus gave them bread! Through him God reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. In short, it is a hope that ought to inspire us to build for the coming Kingdom, as signposts and first fruits of a coming King.
Let me give you an example of how these hopes may work in practice. In the English paper this week I read the very sad news of a 23-year-old mother and her four children under 5. Social care was threatening to take them out of the home. Her boyfriend – the father – had left her for another. She lost all hope, and just as the mothers in Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time, she choose rather to kill the symbols of her hope than let them be taken into captivity. She wanted to be with her children in a better place, drawing “I love you” on their bodies as a farewell.
There are no words to describe the sadness of reading this story in the week my baby girl was born. We have four children under 5 as well. If our hope is focussed solely on the age to come, we would have little comfort to offer, and only reaffirm her that she is now with her children in a better place. This is off course partly true, but we would have hope for a lot more in this life. But the hope for a kingdom in this present age, doesn’t seem to have helped Fiona very much either. The reaction in the newspaper resembled this hope: “If only the government and social services would have stepped in”. She was suffering; and in her case, the social services did not south the suffering of her soul. It caused more fear.
So we should ask, where was the real hope in and for this mother’s life? Where were the disciples of Jesus who were building for the kingdom? We might respond with Phillip: “What are we among so many people suffering in such complicated ways?” But Jesus multiplied the 5 loaves to serve 5000. We are in this church with about 100 people in this service and another 100 in the next. Each person has on average a few hundred contacts with people each week. That easily makes up for about 40000 people we alone as a church can touch with our hope.
This is our mission to build for the Kingdom. On this final Sunday of Trinity Season “we gather up all the fragments that nothing may be lost”. So, make use of every opportunity. Look around you in your neighbourhood, at your work, on your school or university. As a family we have recently been on the receiving end of a lot of help from many of you, many people have cooked meals for us, baby-sitted our children, given us clothes, etc. This was so encouraging in our struggles. Every little thing helps. In another way, we send out many announcement cards. Some we just put in the mailboxes of people in our flat we didn’t know. One lady approached my wife yesterday and thanked her for the card. Her mother had just passed away, and she found the card such a sign of hope.
Such moments are opportunities to minister the hope that is in us by Jesus Christ. To do this, Jesus first has to be our own personal King. The person who “delivered me from the domain of darkness and transferred me to the Kingdom of His beloved Son”, as Paul states in the Epistle. In Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. This is made visible in our Baptism. There Jesus becomes our personal king. And this moment is another opportunity for our friends, family and the whole congregation to see the hope of the resurrection, of new life, in action in the present world. Saturday January 3rd is the Baptism of our Jael. But Saturday the 6th of December there is the baptism of Aisha. Aisha is a young girl, a foster child of Otto and Barbara van Boetzelaer. She has really been looking forward to her baptism, sharing her faith with others. For reasons of space it is on Saturday, but we do hope that many of you will be there to share in this celebration of hope and new life.
To conclude, we cannot create the perfect kingdom of God on earth now. I cannot control the future of my daughter. But our hope for the coming of our Lord and a renewed world where righteousness will reign, if it means anything, should inspire us to now build for that kingdom personally and corporately, through our local church and various organisations. And those good works we do now will not be in vain, but be affirmed at His coming. They matter, because this world matters in God’s eyes.
The collect of our day brings this out very beautifully. So let us pray it together.
STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Come Lord Jesu, come quickly.