May I speak and may we listen, in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Texts: Psalm 9:9-20 & Luke 21:5-19
I don’t know what you make of those readings, but for me as I read the Gospel reading from Luke – one that we actually used at our staff meeting on Wednesday something about it seemed to ring true, and still does. Because whether we like it or not, whilst we’re not there yet – the world we live in feels like that kind of world…a kind of ‘end times’ world.
Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus says things to those around him, that we couldn’t quite imagine him saying to anyone today. If Jesus said to us, what he says to the folk outside the Temple, we would probably not be best pleased.
The temple is the focal point of community.
The temple is the thing which identifies you as being a proper Jew.
The temple is the place where as families you made sacrifices to God.
The temple is the place where God dwells – and is contained, safely….out of harms way where we have put him.
You see, if you can keep God in his place – you really need not worry about him interfering with the human institutions that oppress, and persecute, and trample on the needy….
But Jesus pointing at the temple (and commenting on its future) isn’t just a statement about the religious authority and power structures, but also about the political authority and power, which ultimately are temporary – the hierarchy of faith so closely linked to the hierarchy of the world. Jesus is speaking of nationhood, and identity, as much as religious influence – and what he is saying is: ‘even these most permanent of things will crumble in God’s time’.
Now, Jesus isn’t doing much more in Luke’s Gospel at this point than just simply sitting outside the Temple – most likely. He isn’t inside it, but he’s in clear view, because just at the point where people are commenting about how elaborate the Temple is, in the same way in which we might praise a beautiful building today – Jesus says “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another: all will be thrown down.”. so not just is the place going to change, not only is this place going to suffer damage – no the WHOLE, entire thing, will be destroyed. Raised to the ground. This object of bricks and mortar into which you have wrongly invested so much will not stand forever, and neither will the human power structures you so gladly hold on to!
And then Jesus begins this long essay about the signs and persecutions that are to come – which will not be the end in themselves, but a sign of the end. “Teacher when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” then we hear about the wars and rumours of wars, and nations rising against each other, and kingdoms against kingdoms, earthquakes, famines, plagues, portents and signs from heaven….but first…persecution, imprisonment….betrayal, capital punishment, and hatred….but not a hair on your head will perish, says Jesus. (hardly comforting to us, perhaps!)
And eventually, towards the end of chapter 21, Jesus says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory……when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”.
I think it’s easy on Remembrance Sunday, particularly with readings like this – to do one of two things – either we end up at the point where we have spoken about the past in such a way that we forget how quickly the past can repeat itself, or we talk so much about the future that we almost glorify the past without realising it – and pretend as though the world we live in today was put right by those who laid down their lives before us.
Neither extremes are actually very helpful.
It seems to me that for Remembrance to work properly:
Remembrance has to be more than simply the wearing of symbols, the gathering around monuments, and the observance of silences.
Remembrance has to be more than simply re-calling the names of those who have died in service,
It has to be more than simply mourning and recalling the past, as though it was a totally different chapter to the present – and perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that we say ‘lest we forget’ but in reality we do forget.
All too often, all too quickly, and all too easily.
We forget how fortunate we are to live in freedom and to enjoy peace,
We forget how many still suffer from the wounds of tyranny and warfare.
We forget how much injustice is carried out in war.
And now, at this point in time – as the Chilcot report has identified –
many half-truths have been told in the lead up to some awful wars, and awful human rights abuses of which Tony Blair and George Bush are not at all innocent parties.
You know, we don’t remember properly when we only remember our victories, and not our failures.
We don’t remember properly when we only remember our wounded and fallen,
We don’t remember properly when we fail to communicate to the next generation the responsibility that they have to make sure the world is not in as much a mess as they have found it in!
I think this year, Remembrance Sunday has taken on for me a very different feel.
In a world where violence seems so commonplace, and warfare seems the first option for many,
In a world which seems to give support to people like Marine Le Pen, and Nigel Farage, and most worryingly Donald Trump.
What kind of world is this?
And particularly today, I think you have to wonder –
Whether or not Dr Goebbels and the Nationalist Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany didn’t actually win the war? In the realm of ideas, of language, and thought, and politics….because whatever twisted thinking managed to hold the fort in that time, and dominate people’s good judgement – is clearly raising its head again.
Most frighteningly – With a mandate…and that has got to disturb us as Christian people.
That’s got to wake us up a little more…!
Yet most of the Christians I speak to have a very quick response to my anxiety…they say things like: God is still God, or God is still on his throne, or Love ‘trumps’ hate….
And of course that’s true – and if any presbyter in the Church of God didn’t believe that God was still the great grand guardian of the universe – then they should probably resign, that’s obvious.
Yes God is still God, and God is still on his throne…whatever that means, and to be honest I’m not always sure!
But I have to say, we must remember that:
God was on his throne during the trans-atlantic slave trade,
God was on his throne during the struggle for women’s voting rights,
God was on his throne in Nazi Germany,
God was on his throne during 9/11, and 7/7,
God has BEEN on his throne through every tragedy in human history, and and and ……! Need I go on?
Those kind of simplistic Christian niceties which never really comfort or save anybody are tiring…
And at the same time – elaborate theology doesn’t undo the hell we ourselves wreak on earth and have to live with and endure.
So yes, God is on his throne – but if that’s where the good news ends, we’re not thinking or praying or feeling hard enough in a world where platitudes and sentiment mean very little to those who feel afraid for very good reasons.
Being Easter people doesn’t mean we get to circumnavigate the Good Friday’s in our lives and in our world in a year when it seems all the havoc of hell has been released upon us.
Being people of the resurrection doesn’t mean we get to avoid the darkness of death, or the turmoil and fear, and disturbance of the world.
Being people of hope doesn’t mean we don’t experience the lows of seeing nations, including our own – make some very bizarre almost unimaginable decisions.
We heard the psalmist say: ‘The nations have sunk in the pit that they have made! In the net that they hid, has their own foot been caught…..for the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.’
And I have the difficult privilege of searching the mines of my soul for some good news and proclaiming it, in an almost post-brexit, president trump, british-arms-supplying, Syrian-drowning, Calais-refugee-denying world….and the most fitting word would probably be silence, but that’s not quite good enough.
St Paul tonight might say to us: Be strong, persevere, for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Stand firm, be people of prayer….be people of truth, be people of courage. Keep alert, and persevere.
I think as Methodist people if we got as worked up and passionate about the state of the world, as much as we do when it comes to the colour of chairs, the production of rotas, the giving of notices, and the times of our services – we would be twice as influential in the world than we are….somehow – we will need again to find our political, sacrificial, and prophetic place in the world today.
For if we are to remain silent, and preaching only ever about God’s love – and not much about God’s justice, then we may as well die….
Or we can be a thorn in the flesh of the unrighteous, the unjust, the corrupt who have power and occupy that prophetic place –
The uncomfortable place, of reminding those in power of the importance of caring for and prioritizing the needs of the poor.
The uncomfortable place, of holding up before the governments of the world, a true image of who they are, and of how their choices impact the weakest most vulnerable amongst us.
The uncomfortable place, of building bridges rather than walls, and fostering union rather than disunion.
The uncomfortable place, of being willing to speak truth to power – with all the courage of God himself.
For years, we haven’t had to be that radical – or that prophetic, but we can’t be the kind of Church I think God calls us to be – unless we become a Church of the people, by the people and for the people….for that is where God is. And the principalities and powers of our day – have more power than I think they ought to have, and people in command of that power that terrify me, but they do not have the power of God. And they will never have the power of God.
Perhaps, like Jesus we must stand outside the places where people have wrongly invested themselves, to point at the structures and ideals into which people have put everything – and like Jesus outside the temple in Jerusalem, point and say “this will not last forever”.
God is on his throne, of course he is, and by that what we really mean I suppose is that God is still in control, in charge, in command of things at the last – but that doesn’t mean that we get to sit here all day contemplating the mysteries of our faith…beautiful though they are!
For the sake of future generations, the world is going to need every bit of what Donald Soper called ‘goodwill on fire’ – every bit of prophetic courage – everybit of love on fire for God and neighbour – the kind of love that gives and doesn’t count the cost, which puts the interests of others before our own, which flows from a love of the God…who is justice, and righteousness, and truth….the same God who today says to us, and to the whole Church on earth those words given to the prophet Jeremiah:
‘You shall go to all to whom I send you,
And you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
For I am with you to deliver you,
Says the Lord.
Now I have put my words in your mouth.
I appoint you over nations and kingdoms,
To pluck and pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant –
I have made you today, a fortified city,
An iron pillar,
And a bronze wall,
Against the whole land – against the kings of Judah,
Its priests, and the people of the land.
They will fight against you;
But they shall not prevail against you,
For I am with you, says the Lord – to deliver you.’