In one thousand days we will arrive at the year 2000AD. Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. Whether or not it is accurate in its dating from the birth of Christ, the year 2000 is numbered as a measure in faith of the time since Jesus was born. A new year brings new hopes, new dreams and a time for new resolutions. How much more then will a new millennium be an inspiration to change for the better, and with only 1000 days to go it is time to ask what are our hopes for the world?
In our old testament reading Isaiah outlines a hope for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. He was speaking at a time when his people had been taken away from their homeland and put to work building houses for others to live in and planting for others to eat. It must have appeared to his people at the time that it was a natural consequence of life that there were people who oppressed, and people who were oppressed. People who wee made to fight, to work, to be slaves, as well as those who ordered and controlled. It was a natural order. Isaiah questions that ‘natural order’ in his famous poetic passage about animals. (Look up Isaiah 11 for a longer excerpt from it.)
He speaks of the lion, a ferocious beast, killing for its food, which will eat straw like the ox. The wolf and the lamb feed together. The cow and the bear will make friends and their young will lie down together, as the panther lies down with the kid.
It all sounds too good to be true. It could never happen! Or could it? A young child, playing with toy animals, has no problem at all with the cow and the bear making friends, or the calf and the lion cub eating together. Jesus knew what he was doing when he held up a child as an example. No such prejudice for the child. They see clearly the possibilities of living harmoniously, playing together. It is not until we grow older that we see things differently, based perhaps on what we see as real grievances.
A story told at teacher training college has always stuck in my mind. A group of toddlers, two or three years old, were introduced to a playroom with many soft toys. They immediately began to cuddle them, to play and to enjoy the facilities. Later they were removed from the room and looked back at t through a window. As they looked a man entered the room and kicked a teddy from one side of the room to the other. The next time the children were allowed to go in their first action was to do the same, and in a short space of time the toys were ruined, and fights broke out.
We may not live in exile like Isaiah, but increasingly we feel pressures and influences put upon us. The struggle to remain financially comfortable, to be fashionable, to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, to compare favourably to the media created images of life portrayed in adverts and soap operas. We do not feel safe in the streets at night and we fight each other figuratively for advantages, for control or for recognition.
The animals live together on Isaiah’s ‘Holy Mountain’ because they are in a land ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord’. They put God before their own ego, their own interests, their own arrogance.
In the first of our short psalms today the psalmist writes: ‘How good it is, how wonderful wherever people live as one!’ (psalm 133) As Christians, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that the ‘new heaven’ is in place. Because of his victory over evil on the cross we are assured a place with him in that ‘new heaven’. Here on earth, though, we may find ourselves more in sympathy with the second psalm extract. ‘We have had our fill of the scoffing of the proud and the contempt of the arrogant’. (psalm 123)
We find ourselves surrounded by images of poverty, violence, decadence, waste, greed, the list continues. We can survive all these influences because we cling to the one image that we know can lift us out of this and fill us with hope. Christ, the image and word of God. Where Christ, his example and his teaching is at the centre, communities can begin to reflect the ideals of that ‘new earth’. We hear the testimony of people who have been on retreat in such places as Taize, Iona and near here at Lee Abbey.
A ‘new heaven and a new earth’. The Kingdom of God is not only a matter of life after death. It is about the here and now. As we approach the turn of the millennium, (1000 days to go!) can we rise to the task of playing our part in the creation of a ‘new earth’ as stewards of God’s creation? To make our world, according to the second letter of Peter, ‘a place where righteousness will be at home’.
We recognise, just as for Isaiah’s animals, the key to living peacefully with each other is the ‘knowledge of God’ revealed to us in the life and words of his son Jesus Christ.
In John’s Gospel we are assured that ‘everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’(3.15). Jesus, saving us from our sins, charges us to spread his image, his example, his words to all people. It is in bringing people to a knowledge of the Lord that we can begin to put right what is wrong in our society.
In today’s gospel we hear of Thomas who refused to believe the good news of the resurrection without proof. He wanted to see and feel those holes in the hands and feet, the wound in his side. Thomas gets a bad press here. When the other disciples first saw the risen Lord in that closed room Jesus had to reassure them. ‘Look I’m not a ghost! Ghosts don’t have flesh and bone!’. Each disciple required the assurance that Thomas was looking for. Jesus’ words to Thomas were directed at all the disciples.
‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.’
In Peter’s first letter he encourages us in our faith. Thinking of that time with Thomas and the disciples he says:
‘You did not see him, yet you love him, and still without seeing him you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described - because you believe’.
If Jesus himself had to physically prove his resurrection, and through this his identity, to his closest followers, what chance have we to bring others to a knowledge of him? We who have not seen and yet believe. How can we face the ‘scoffing of the proud and the contempt of the arrogant’? And face them we must if we are to do what Christ calls us to do. John says in today’s epistle.
‘Jesus is a sacrifice to atone for our sins and not ours only but the sins of the whole world’.
What evidence have we got to show the world why they too should accept the message, teaching and sacrifice of Jesus in order that Isaiah’s dream, and our own dreams for the new millennium should be realised. ‘A place where righteousness will be at home’.
I believe the evidence must come from us. By sharing a common life, as John puts it in the epistle, with the father and his son Jesus Christ. With the bible and the church to support us in our spiritual lives we are called to be living witnesses to Christ. Just as it is by the example and lives of the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, and by the lives and examples of those who brought us to the faith, so it is by our example and our willingness to share in a common life that we can bring others to a ‘knowledge of the Lord’.
Jesus said ‘Peace be with you! As the father sent me so I send you!’. Will we be as brave as those disciples who, threatened with a further stretch of prison in Acts 4.20 said: ‘We cannot promise to stop proclaiming what we have seen or heard’. Will we have the courage and strength to love one another as Jesus loves us, so that all men will know that we are his disciples?
John warns us, ‘If we claim to be sharing in his life while we go on living in darkness our words and our lives are a lie’. We will not convince anyone, least of all ourselves, if by our words we claim to follow Jesus, but by our actions we are seen to be half-hearted. Of course we cannot hope to have the strength to achieve this lifestyle by ourselves. We gain our strength from the knowledge of the Lord, by the power of his spirit and by our relationship in prayer, confession and communion with Jesus himself. We are not perfect, we are not able to live without sin, but by supporting each other and by the knowledge that our sins are forgiven if we are truly sorry, we can do our best to portray the ‘image and word of God’ to all people.
1000 days to go until the turn of the millennium. 2000 years from the time Jesus was believed to have been born. What an opportunity to begin now to work for ‘that peace that the world cannot bring’, to establish a new earth as part of the new heaven that Jesus has prepared for us.
Finally a version of the words of Saint Theresa:
‘Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today.
He has no feet but our feet to lead men in his way.
He has no tongue but our tongue to tell men how he died.
He has no help but our help to bring men to his side’.
Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which to look at Christ’s compassion for the world. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and ours are the hands with which he blesses us now.