As we approach Advent we begin to turn our thoughts to the end of time, to our death, and to a time when we will stand in the presence of God. We consider particularly themes to do with judgement and therefore to do with sin. And we have it seems to me a very narrow view of both.
Earlier this week someone at St Marks was talking to me about their daily bible notes and that mornings reading and reflection had all been about the second coming and we were talking about the fact that we don’t often preach or think about this any more.
Well, Robin, in todays reading and in fact in this Kingdom season we can and we will talk about the second coming …
Are you ready? Not for this sermon but are you ready for when Christ comes again to collect his own. All three of our readings this morning and in fact every morning if you follow the Lectionary for morning prayer are warnings of what is about to come and the fact that if our names are not in the book we are not getting in. Strong stuff.
Is it worth just hoping that we get in, or do we actually intentionally have to make sure that we get in. There is a fine line, I think between hope and naivety, just as there is between reality and pessimism. As a result the strength of our hope needs to be tested by proper engagement in reality so that our yearnings for a better order lead to challenge and action, the triumph of hope over experience.
The famous motto of the BBC reads ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’. Its peculiar to the BBC, but clearly it is inspired by the OT the book of Micah and the book of Zechariah. We, where we, envisage a better world order when the saviour will come and transfigure the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.
And yet the BBC, whose motto imagines that kingdom come, is currently not reporting the devastating retaliatory attacks between Israel and Palestine not far from those very stones which Jesus’ disciples behold when they express their wonder to him ‘look Teacher what large stones and large buildings’. The wailing associated with that western wall which is the only bit left of those stones is not the preserve of any one group of people but must be a wailing shared by all of us if we are to avoid the danger of naivety and challenge the danger of pessimism. It is at best bewildering and at most frightening if you think about it, that Jesus who is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy that nation shall not lift up sword against nation and that Messiah will speak peace to all nations, then tells his disciples that nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. What are we to make of that extraordinary scene in this Gospel lesson. Jesus seems to be saying that all this is necessary - but the beginning of the birth pangs as he puts it.
Does that mean that what is happening in Israel and Palestine right this minute or in fact in The Yemen or in Syria is somehow inevitable and we should resign ourself to it or is there something quite profoundly challenging in what Jesus predicts. Not that nation rising against nation in itself somehow inevitable but the consequence of our failure to recognise that God makes righteousness and praise to blossom before all nations not only before one nation, and certainly not just my nation.
The current situation in Gaza, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem is by no means straightforward nor can blame be attributed whole to one side or another. nor is it as simple as there are two sides. Like everything it is religious and political, historical and contemporary, geographic and financial, opportunistic and strategic, and it is very real and it is very man made. It is where experience has been allowed to triumph over hope.
When Jesus looks at the temple and says not one stone will be left upon another and that it will all be thrown down. He is not making not some great dramatic prophecy, discerned through some great divine insight, he is merely reflecting on the nature of human folly because any shrewd political observer of the time would have seen the way things were going and said exactly the same thing. And indeed the temple was destroyed in the first Jewish - Roman War. A distant echo perhaps of the mortar attacks of recent days but by no means unrelated.
This is the season immediately before Advent when we begin to turn our thoughts to the end of time, to our death, and to a time when we will stand in the presence of God. We consider particularly themes to do with judgement and therefore to do with sin. And we have it seems to me a very narrow view of both of these themes. There are three sins I think, that we are - of which we are all guilty which relate to what Jesus is saying in this mornings gospel and to the situations in Israel, Palestine, Yemen Syria, sadly countless other places, including our own country as we suffer more BREXIT fiascos. And they stand quite far apart from the traditional vices which religious people have had an unhealthy obsession.
The first is tribalism. And our desire to build walls around ourselves to shut out reality, to shut others to shut out difference and to create romantic cocoons which are mean and false. At best we can call it tribalism, at worst we can call it ethnic cleansing.
The second is arrogance and that extraordinary habit at which religious people excel, making God dependent on us, rather than us dependent on God. it is where we judge on God’s behalf, judge others, and rather than demonstrating religious zeal, it merely displays lack of faith.
The third is blame. Where we fail to understand on a worryingly regular basis that we are all jointly responsible for everything that happens in this life. The intricate connectedness of everything makes it impossible ever to attribute fault to one person and to no-one else.
Jesus on the cross understood this which is why he opened wide his arms for us all. When God spoke his last and final word about everything and took the blame on himself. The cross was the triumph of God over tribalism, over arrogance and blame. It was the triumph of hope over experience and we must never forget that when we hear of mortar attacks or when we sit in our armchairs criticising.
I’m going to finish with a few lines from the readings we heard earlier from the bible because there is nothing better: the bible says it all. So a few lines from Daniel:
‘Then there will be time of troubles - the worst since nations first came into existence and when that time comes all the people whose names are written in God’s book will be saved’.
and from Hebrews
‘Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess because we can trust God to keep his promise, let us be concerned for one another, to help one another, to show love and do good. let us not give up the habit of meeting together as some are doing, instead let us encourage one another all the more since you see that the day of the Lord is coming near’.