Many years ago we were invited to a 21st birthday party. It was a big, glitzy, good fun occasion. Our almost 3 year old daughter had a fine time racing around, as rug rats do. Until, at around 11.30pm, she came up to me in some distress.
"Daddy, when are we having the birthday party?"
I was a bit confused. "What do you mean, Sweetheart? This is the birthday party!"
She said, "Not it's not. There isn't a birthday cake. The party hasn't started yet!"
So I explained that the party was more than just the cake, and she looked around wide eyed and silent. I could almost see the wheels turning as she worked through this new idea that the party had already started and been going for a long time.
What's a birthday party have to do with today's reading!?
Well, a hundred and fifty years or so before Jesus' time the author of the Book of Daniel wrote about visions of four great hideous beasts rising up out of the sea. But then there was someone
like a human being— the ancient text says, "like a son of man"—
who was presented to "the Ancient One"— who is… God—
and who "was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him."
It says, "His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed."
In that story… the human one is contrasted with the beasts. It says the fourth beast
"was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away…"
Daniel was talking about the great Empires of his time. He was saying the Empires are like hideous beasts, but that God will send someone like a human being, a son of man— someone who will show us a new way of being human.
And when Jesus arrived on the scene he called himself the son of man, the human one. It was a way of saying he was someone different to the old ways of Empire. He was talking about being a new way of being human.
And people began to follow him. They were intrigued by him. Who was he? What was he about? What did it mean to be "the Son of Man?" How would all it work out?
And that's what Matthew is telling us in today's reading in Chapter 25. He begins by saying, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory—" the word "glory" is a way of saying, when we see the Son of Man as he really is, when we see and understand who he is and what he is about.
So the reading from Matthew 25 today is a reading about seeing Jesus as he really is. And… … it's the last story before the crucifixion… so it's saying that Jesus' crucifixion is also where we can see him as he really is.
And Matthew 25 is a bit like the story of the birthday party because…. everyone knows— well, they think they know— what is going to happen: God, or God's representative will come, and everyone will be judged… and some of us will get cake!
Except… it's all different!
Does the king in this story give a pass mark to all the good people?
The people who go to church?
The people with good jobs in nice suburbs?
The popular people?
The nice people like you and me?
It's all about whether people who had met the king when he was thirsty, had given him a cup of water… or had fed him, when he was hungry. Stuff like that.
And… stranger still, the people who had helped the king were… very surprised. They didn't remember meeting him at all! And the people who hadn't helped the king were… well, I suspect they were outraged— and rightly so, too! After all, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" How can you say this to us!?"
And it turns out that to be truly human— to be a son of man or a daughter of Eve, and not to be a beast-like creature—
means to help the poor,
and the losers,
and the outsiders.
Which in our age… means
the people in gaol
the people on unemployment benefits
the mentally ill…
That's when we meet Jesus. That's what allows us to grow from being a very smart animal into a human being.
So suddenly, the big birthday party at the end of time has a very different kind of cake. And those who assumed they would be getting the best bits— and the first bits— found they had some fairly bitter things to chew.
But you remember, of course, in my story, that the birthday party turned out to be a whole lot more than just the cake! While my little girl was busy waiting for the cake, it turned out the party had already started… and she hadn't realised. Her whole idea of what a birthday party was… was turned on its head, and she had to grow into a completely new understanding of parties.
It's the same with us, and how we think about Jesus, and judgement, and being human. The party has already started
There are two key and … perhaps new… understandings I want to bring us this morning.
The first is about judgement. And the second is about when the party starts.
Judgement is not dished out by God as some sort of punishment. That's what we think— it’s even what some parts of the bible may have thought— when we think God takes revenge, like us.
What really happens is that when we live in such a way that we don't look after the sick and the poor and the marginalised; when we don't privilege the least in society; it breeds violence upon ourselves. I quote: "Creation has been structured “since the foundation of the world,"" in other words, by God… "to yield blessing when all the least are cared for. When the least are sacrificed instead of cared for, the result is a violence that envelopes even those in power… Creation has been structured by God to work best for everyone when the most vulnerable are attended to instead of the least vulnerable…"
When we look after the rich, instead of the poor, it will come back to bite us. It is playing with fire. Judgement… all that fire and violence… comes because of us, not God. God loves us.
The second thing to look at is the word eternal. We think of eternal as being everlasting. But eternal, in Jesus' world, meant something like an eon or an era. And Jesus' people thought of two eras in creation… the one they were living in, and the one which would begin when the Son of Man, the Messiah came.
Our picture about judgement has always been about being in the future— we're often quite frightened. But what the Bible teaches us is that the Messiah has already come. Jesus has already judged the world. The new era, the new eternity, has begun.
And we can continue to live under judgement and reap violence from each other's planting and hatred and injustice…
we can enter the new reign of Jesus, which is now, by living the way Jesus lived. What I'm saying is: The party has already started. We are living… now… in the reign of the King, of the Messiah.
Now I remember my little girl when I told her the party had already started, and that we were at the party already. She was quite shocked. She was puzzled— it didn't make sense— how could this… be the party.
And I've sometimes felt the same. How can this life be the party!? How can Jesus already be among us!? Everything changes… life isn't what I thought it was.
There is one thing above all that has helped me make sense of this. The more I give myself to people who are on the margins; the more I love the people who are not like me; the less I worry 'being good and getting saved, and just get on being good to other people in the way Jesus did… the more it all makes sense. And the more often it is that I see that the party has started, and that it is good. Come join the party. Live like Jesus.
Andrew Prior (2017)
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