I couldn't possibly preach on the two readings we've just had without talking about judgement, much as I'd like to. I don't know whether it's just the Methodist church in particular, or whether other denominations have gone the same way, but we don't tend to talk about judgement much any more. I can entirely see why - the thought of it makes me just as uncomfortable as anyone else - but at the same time I don't think we can ignore it. We preach a gospel of salvation, which means there must be something we're being saved from. We could try to weasel out of the issue by saying that Jesus saves us "from our sins" but unless there's some reckoning for our sins, it still doesn't amount to much.
So, we read these passages about the second coming. "Be ready!" says Matthew. It could happen at any time! Not even Jesus knows when - being completely human, he's taken on the ignorance of the time of his own second coming. We get this strange image of one man being taken from a field, and another being left - of one woman being taken while grinding corn, and another being left. Matthew almost makes it sound like an episode of Star Trek, with Captain Kirk being teleported back into the Enterprise - "Beam me up, Jesus!" Matthew is trying to emphasise just how sudden the second coming will be.
Paul takes a slightly different approach. Rather than concentrating on how unknown the date and time of the second coming is, he's eager to say how soon it will be. "The day is almost here!" It's coming, it's coming, get ready...
Matthew doesn't really tell us what we should be doing, other than being ready and keeping guard, but Paul talks about shrugging off immorality, and putting on the armour of light; of clothing ourselves with Christ. The whole imagery of day and night, light and darkness is compelling - the idea of light comes right through the Bible, starting with the third verse of Genesis and finishing five verses from the end of Revelation, where Jesus declares himself to be the Morning Star. I'll be talking a bit more about walking in the light of Christ in general later, but for the moment let's concentrate on Paul's examples.
He specifies all these actions we should be avoiding - debauchery, jealousy etc. He doesn't actually say that it's to "deserve" salvation, although that's one way of reading it. As Christ is our salvation through faith rather than acts though, I think there's more to it than that. In the Lord's Prayer, we talk about "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Paul talks about the day nearly being here, and tells us to act as people do in the daytime. During the day, in public, everyone can be seen by everyone else, so most people act decently. We often save the worst of our actions for times when we can't be seen. God's will in heaven includes everyone being seen honestly, all the time - and I believe that's where Paul is heading in this passage. We should make all our actions the kind of things that we're not ashamed of being public. That's how it'll be when the time of salvation has come, so let's start practising now!
As Christians, we should be looking forward to the second coming, however we imagine it happening - whether we believe it will actually be the dead rising from their physical graves or not. We should be ready for it, waiting for it, eager for it, because while the judgement may be terrible, we have our salvation through the light of the world, Jesus Christ, who came to save us. In the meantime, let us start how we mean to go on - doing God's will on earth as it is in heaven.
So, Isaiah urges us (as members of Jacob's house through Jesus, effectively) to walk in the light of the Lord. Helpfully, he also tells us something about what life is like in the light of the Lord - there will be peace and justice. All nations will come to the Lord. We will all be taught God's ways, and walk in God's paths.
While all of that is no doubt true, it's the last phrase - "let us walk in the light of the Lord" - which really set me thinking. I don't think I've ever been preaching on a passage and had so many other bits of the Bible bubble up to the front of my mind before now. Let's start with light itself.
Obviously, the main thing we use it for is seeing. Have you ever noticed how when it's dark, you can't see colours as well as you can when it's light? It's not just that they're darker - you just can't tell what colour something is nearly as clearly as you can normally. That's because there are two different types of sensor in the eye, and we rely mostly on one type in the light, and the other in the dark. We're effectively missing all the colour when we're looking at things without enough light. Now, I'm not here to give you a biology lesson - but think of applying that to God. Paul wrote that we see God now "through a glass, darkly". If he were writing to a modern audience he might have said that we see God as if God were on a badly tuned black and white television which keeps conking out. When we're in God's light, we'll see God fully - not just the DVD version on an enormous expensive telly, but the real thing! Just think for a moment of all we know of God - his incredible love, mercy, power, friendship - and now think that that's only a tiny fraction, a dull, tarnished, dusty vision of God. Just think how wonderful it will be to walk in God's light!
Beyond being with God, I'm not going to pretend I know what heaven's like. But I'd like to think that we'll still be in relationships with each other as well as with God. Not the same kind of relationships as we have here, of course, but something. So when we think about the light, we need to think how we'll be seen, too. To skip back to the Old Testament, it will be like a refiner's fire - we will be purified until we shine like gold and silver. However that happens - and the images in both testaments don't make it sound like a pleasant process - we can't remain in God's presence and light as we are. Our sins will be stripped away - forgiven and forgotten by God and necessarily by others, too. Without our sins, what are we like? We need to go even further back to see that - to Genesis.
We are all created in the image of God. Scholars have no doubt written hundreds of thousands of words about what that one phrase means, and I'm sure each of us here has our own idea of it. For me, it means that however much we've covered it up over the years, at the core of our being, there's a God-like nature, a part of us which is wholly good. That, to me, is what will be left - still with us as individuals, but each reflecting God's glory in a different way - that's what will come out of the refiner's fire.
Being like that ourselves is an awesome idea - but now imagine heaven full of people like that. Imagine God as a central light in a room full of mirrors and crystals, each showing that light and bringing out one aspect, one colour, one ray in particular. As I said before, I'm not about to predict what heaven will be like - but just imagine it...
All of that is "then" - in heaven, after judgement, in the full light of God. Now, I'm an impatient person, I'm afraid to say. I want as much of that as possible, right here and now. One of the themes I'm constantly bringing up in my preaching is bringing heaven and earth closer together - and as we can't pull heaven down, that means raising earth up.
I mentioned three particular aspects of walking in the light of God: seeing God in full and glorious colour, reflecting God in our purified selves, and being with countless others who are likewise. What can we do about that now?
The answer lies in Jesus, of course. The light of the world, come to us first as a baby in all his human weakness, then dying for us on the cross, transforming death into life, and darkness into light. It's all over the place in John's gospel, right from the start.
When we want to find out about God - look to Jesus. Even though the gospels are also to some extent showing us God "through a glass, darkly", reflecting the concerns of the writers and editors, they still show us Jesus as man and God. As we approach Christmas, we particularly think of Jesus as God made flesh - a concrete way of seeing God's love.
When we want to be purified, so that we can reflect God's light while we are still on earth - look to Jesus. As the root of our salvation, he can wash us clean of our sins, giving us a fresh start and letting us shine in the world's darkness. With the help of Jesus, we can see God in ourselves, God working through our lives to bring the kingdom closer.
When we want to see God's image in others - look to Jesus. This is a theme that struck me on Easter Sunday, in the evening service up the hill. When Mary was in the garden, she had to look to a stranger and find Jesus there - and the same was true on the road to Emmaus. Now, if we look through Jesus' eyes at those we meet, we can see the light of God struggling to break free. When we speak with Jesus' voice, we can help that light to shine forth.
Jesus is our light, both now and in heaven. Through faith in him, we are saved and can stand in God's glorious light in heaven. Through his power and with the help of the Spirit, we can bring some of that light to earth. As we celebrate the season of Advent, we remember the light given to the world, and look forward to the light of the age to come. Amen.