SERMON 15 NOVEMBER 2015
When I was in my second last year at school I became a boarder, just for that one year. It was not a happy time. I was still in the school where I had been a day girl, but was now one of only 12 boarders. We were treated well, so I can’t complain about that. I was just homesick. Every Saturday night we older girls were given what was meant to be a treat. After our Saturday evening meal, which was alternately tinned spaghetti or baked beans on toast – the latter only marginally better than the former in my eyes – we were allowed to watch a movie on TV. Saturday evening movies were often thrillers. I have always hated thrillers and couldn’t bring myself to watch the Hitchcock films which the others seemed to relish. I still don’t enjoy scary movies and don’t quite understand how people get pleasure from being frightened. But lots of people do. And, unfortunately, a lot of people seem to live their lives with a background level of fear, fed almost constantly by what we are told is news on our televisions. We may turn on our TVs in the evenings almost anticipating the next dramatic violent incident.
When I came to think about the gospel reading for today, I thought again about how people react to situations or predictions of dramatic threatening situations. I know that a common reaction to what Mark has written is to immediately identify all the terrible events we see and hear about in the world around us as indicating the end of the world and a coming cataclysm. We are almost geared up for it but what it might mean can terrify us. When we leap into that frame of mind I think we are in danger of missing a lot of what is happening in this passage and a lot of what Jesus is intending his friends to hear, quite apart from developing a very slanted perspective on life in the here and now.
So let’s start at the beginning. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples, most of whom were these down-to-earth workmen from Galilee. We have no way of knowing how often they had been able to make the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate any of the religious festivals there. It’s quite possible many of them had never been there. At any rate, what we hear at the beginning is how awestruck they were at the splendour of the temple building with its massive stones. But Jesus makes a prophetic statement about its destruction. It must have seemed too incredible to believe. Remember that Mark is writing this after the event has taken place around the year 70 CE. The Temple’s would never be rebuilt. The Pharisees would be no more. Life for the Jewish people lost its centre and the small Christian communities were also scattered across the whole area, subject to misunderstanding and persecution.
In the second part of the reading, Jesus has moved with his disciples to the Mount of Olives. This had been for centuries, and remained, a burial place of the Jews. From here they looked across the valley and could see there before them the great sweep of the temple buildings. Now he is with his closest friends, Peter, James and John. They seem to be still trying to grasp what Jesus has said about it all being destroyed. They do not doubt him, but, as we all do when we hear a prediction of something shocking, they want to know when. Jesus refuses to answer that, as he will do at other times in the passage that follows. Remember also that he is very close to the events that will lead to his betrayal, his suffering and death. There are some things he wants to tell his disciples to prepare them for their future. He warns his close friends to be careful that they are not led astray. And he tells them not to be alarmed or frightened when there are wars and rumours of wars, just as there always had been and would continue to be. Likewise with dramatic natural disaster. This is not the end of things but the birth pangs of God’s new beginning. Jesus is being pastoral to his friends. He wants them to be able to look back and remember, when things are threatening and fearful, that he knew that life would be like that; that this was not about God doing this to them nor was it the way God wants things to be. They are to keep remembering what he had shown them in his life about the way of God’s kingdom.
So what is the message in this for us, who seem to see ever intensifying scenarios of doom and disaster? What does it mean when we see pictures of earthquakes, of bombed out towns and desperate refugees? What does this mean for us when we know that people are starving as their crops fail in endless drought; that children are denied an education; that basic living conditions lead to disease that is entirely preventable? First and foremost Jesus is teaching his beloved followers what they will need to focus on after he is gone. He is counselling them, preparing them. His message, both as regards the temple buildings and in his predictions is that things are not always as they seem. As Phaedrus, a 1st century story teller wrote: “First appearances deceive many: few minds understand what skill has hidden in an inmost corner”. As things become more uncertain around us, we come to see that what has seemed stable and reliable won’t necessarily endure. In what, then, do we trust? We can all look back and see, with some amazement, how different things are in so many ways from what they were when we were children, both in the physical environment around us and in the whole way of life: what governs our days, how we communicate, make decisions, source information, move around, tell the time even. Never mind how we entertain ourselves. Scary movies are much scarier now with computer and digital technology, never mind 3D viewing.
What might Jesus be recalling us to remember if he were sitting here listening to us reflect and think about the world around us? Maybe he would simply say “remember me!” When towers and structures and societies crumble, what remains? WE are here, and what is in our hearts is fundamentally important. Maybe we should have sung “Abide with me” with its words “Change and decay in all around I see. O thou who changest not, abide with me”.
How then shall we live? Our Christian faith tells us that God is always at work, transforming the world. As believers we are called to participate in God’s work of healing and renewal. This is Mark’s perception of the gospel and human life. It is what Jesus was all about. Jesus’ message to his friends was that they should guard against being distracted.
I think it is very easy to be distracted in the church today as we feel vulnerable to the pressures of a secular world around us. How then shall we live? We are living in what we might term the “in between time”, as Christians have, indeed, for centuries. The in between time is the time between Jesus death, resurrection and ascension and what we believe will be God’s kingdom breaking through. We may well think the birth pangs that Jesus talks about tell of very protracted labour pains.
This is an important time to remember who and what we are as Christian people. We look to Christ, the resurrected Christ who was freed from death, from constraints of time and place and who is everywhere part of the life of this world. Sometimes I think these concepts are hard to get our heads around, because they seem to make little sense against other things we hear about in the world we live in. It comes down both to what we have known for ourselves to be true – the Christ whose presence we have found in the darkest corner of our lives as well as in the magnificence of a mountain peak or the ocean deep. It is a step of faith to go on with our eyes focussed on what we know in the depths of our hearts to be true – that God is love and in that love we find the meaning of our lives. It is counter-cultural, and that is what Jesus was forewarning his disciples about.
We are not supposed to get caught up in the alarm and despondency that the state of our world engenders. That doesn’t mean that we can hide away from the world and try to construct another false reality. How often do we hear of groups, sects, which try to do just that and end up feeding upon themselves and being the cause of their own destruction. We are not being told to fence ourselves in and protect ourselves from harm. Jesus knew that his friends would face enormous hardship. Our life of faith calls us to engage with all those around us, with eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand. The gospel message of love of God and neighbour must continue to stand tall over everything we do.
We are nearly at the end of the churches’ year. It comes to a climax next Sunday as we celebrate Christ the King. Today we see how we are presented with what is often interpreted as a coming climax for humankind. We are easily tempted to see these things as an act of God. Nothing in the reading suggests that God is an agent of destruction, and Jesus did not want his friends to be paralysed by fear. Rather like them, we are to focus our living on being part of God’s unceasing activity of love for the world around us, each of us in our own tiny way.
So how then shall we live? How shall we stop ourselves from succumbing to depression at what we see or fear and what we imagine in the future? If we are to live faithfully we have to feed our faith and focus our vision. Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in the twelfth century wrote “You understand little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you.” Maybe we think we understand too much of what is around us, but do we really? We proclaim each Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer “Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever”. Next week we are going to reflect more on that. Hildegard says we are to use what is within us if we are to understand. So we need to know and nurture what that is that is at the core of our being. Our spiritual lives need to be fed so that when our faith is tested, as it often is, we may find our way through the depths and there discover what is true and wise and good. As we Paul writes from prison and hardship in in Rome: “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God the Creator is at the heart of all matter, all being and God’s kingdom still stands over all, waiting to be reborn.
We are followers of Jesus, the Christ, who demonstrated in his living how we should live. And that was not in fear but in belief in the power of love to overcome, ultimately, all that is fearful and deathly.