13th November 2016
Luke 21 5-19
with Rev Helen Mitchell
Well, it’s not the end of the world.
When I was young my parents always seemed to be saying that to me about some dreadful disappointment, following which I was never going to be happy again.
It was meant to be reassuring, but was in fact deeply irritating. But nevertheless, I found myself saying it to my own teenagers as their moods went up and down in those ferocious emotional swings of adolescence.
It’s not the end of the world.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus is having to say this to his disciples.
One of the disciples has commented on the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem, which must have been an awesomely impressive structure, so much more massive and beautiful than anything else in their experience. In reply Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, which did actually take place later, in AD 70, on Roman orders. The Disciples assume that the destruction of the magnificent Temple will be the sign of the end of the world.
This is perhaps clearer in Matthew’s version of this story where they say “ Tell us, when will this happen and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”
They cannot imagine how the life of God’s people could go on without the Temple. Its destruction is unthinkable. The end of the Temple must surely be the end of everything.
Jesus has to correct their mistaken assumption.
No, this will not be the end of the world.
However, this is not any kind of reassurance. It’s not going to be the end of the world because much time and many, mostly horrible things, have to happen first. Wars, insurrections, earth- quakes, famines, plagues. Nation will rise against nation. Many things will feel as though they must be the end of the world, and many voices will tell you that they are, but they won’t be.
We have not far to seek to find evidence of the dreadful truth of Jesus’s predictions. Today we are remembering and honouring those service men and women and others who gave their lives, especially in the two world wars, but also in the many, many conflicts since.
Maggie was telling us on Friday about Vera Britain who lost all the young men she loved in the first World War and worked so tirelessly for peace after it, in the determination, felt by many, that this must be the war to end all wars. How naïve that aspiration sounds to us. Not just war between nations, but bitter civil wars, violence, terrorism, conflict, destruction, have been an endless reality since. And now, suddenly, in the last week, the prospects for a peaceful world seem to have got even bleaker.
The unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump is to be the president of the United States of America, the great power and flagship democracy of the Western world. The Guardian leader writer said on Friday “The unthinkable is only unthinkable until it happens”. And it has.
How did it happen?
Wiser heads than mine have been pouring over this question and many words have been spent on it. I will not add much to them, except to say that it would seem clear that large swathes of Americans felt betrayed and let down by their government, which had ceased to deliver on the promised prosperity of the American Dream, felt resentful of the foreigners who seemed to have stolen their prosperity from them, and very fearful about the future. These hidden fears and resentments have now been exposed to the light by the election result.
The similarities to the Brexit vote are obvious. For many of us, life outside the European Union was also unimaginable. There are perhaps not many parallels between the Temple in Jerusalem and the European Union, but it too felt like an unalterable reality,
Well, that was not the end of the world and this is not the end of the world. All human institutions are provisional, we cannot place our trust in them.
But for us as Christians all this raises deeper questions:
Firstly, whatever is God doing?
Why must there be wars and violence and conflict, why are dangerous men all over the globe allowed to wield such powers of destruction?
Jesus does not say why these things must be and I cannot pretend to have the answers to such a question. At this season, the readings set for Morning Prayer are from Revelation, which describes the visions of St John of Patmos, in which the violence to come before the end of the world is described in lurid symbols of such horror, that they make the prophesies of Jesus here look tame.
Tom Wright in his commentary suggests that perhaps in the ultimate battle against evil, it is somehow necessary for evil to be given time enough to come out into the open and be allowed to do its worst, if it is to be finally and absolutely defeated.
Or perhaps it is simply that God insists on giving his creation freedom and not all the choices we make are good.
We cannot know, we cannot fathom God’s purposes, we must live faithfully with the question unanswered. We can only trust in his promise, evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus, that in the end, death and evil will finally be destroyed, and all will in the end be made well.
So the second question is the more urgent, “how then should we live?” How do we live faithfully as followers of Jesus in this world, of which the end is not yet.
Jesus does address this.
First of all, we are not to waste our time in idle speculation about the future, about what is going to happen and when.
Jesus says “ many will come and say, the time is near! Do not go after them.”
In the car on Thursday, I listened on the radio to hours of speculation by various pundits about what Donald Trump might now do. Pointless really, none of them knew.
As Jesus tells us elsewhere, we are not to be concerned with or frightened by the future. We are simply not to worry about it, because as he says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life”.
We are to engage with the present, which will undoubtedly throw up enough challenges to keep us well occupied.
Jesus especially mentions personal persecution of the most severe sort, which he knows his disciples must face. Persecution may not be our experience, but we can take this to refer more widely to all the trials which life can and does throw at us.
We are to meet them as they come with courage and fortitude, but above all relying on Jesus to be with us and trusting that God will give us what we need to get through.
And we are to testify. In all the events of our life, we are to look for opportunities to witness by word and deed, by what we say and by what we do, to Jesus.
We are to stand up for and act with truth and justice and compassion, both at a political and at a personal level. We are to witness to the one who taught by his words and showed by his life and in his death, that the answer to violence and destruction is not more violence and destruction, but that we must love our enemies, pray for those who wish us harm and respond to evil only with good.
And we are to witness to his Resurrection, to our trust that in the Resurrection of Jesus, the power of evil has already been defeated and so whatever happens first, its eventual total downfall is assured.
We are to witness that, for us, the end of the world is a hope and a promise, not a threat. We do not know, we cannot know, it’s not our business, when it will come, but our Lord will come with it and the fullness of God’s kingdom, when all will be made well.
Maranatha, even so, Come Lord Jesus.