Sermon on Mark 13: 1-8
Alan Bennett, the playwright, is sometimes referred to as a national treasure – a designation for which he apparently has an intense dislike. That’s understandable. It must be very odd to hear yourself referred to as a national treasure.
That’s perhaps one reason why, in a new play by him that has just started at the National, he takes a swipe at another national treasure – the National Trust.
According to a review I read, Bennett seems to long for an England where the past is merely taken for granted rather than prettified and marketed. As well as prettified one might also say ‘petrified’ – in the sense of being set in stone.
Now, although a Lancastrian myself, I have made the odd foray into that strange county they call Yorkshire. On one of those rare adventures I visited Fountains Abbey, which happens to be run by the National Trust. And a very picturesque ruin it is too.
One quite small incident – no more than an observation really – fixed itself in my memory. Against one wall some scaffolding had been placed and there was a workman on the scaffolding replacing some of the grouting between the masonry.
It may well have been some health and safety thing. After all, you don’t want a loose bit of rock falling on a tourist’s head. But I thought at the time – and I still do – that the main motivation for this work was to maintain the ruin as a ruin – to fix it at a certain point in time in its ruinous state. That seemed to me a slighty odd thing to do.
The last thing the National Trust would want is for Fountains Abbey to be a fully functioning monastery again. Heaven forbid, it’s much more picturesque as a ruin.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the National Trust. I would guess that many of you here today are members and it strikes me, on the great scale of moral turpitude, as a relatively harmless institution.
All buildings – including this church where we are this morning, sturdily built though it is (we hope) – will one day either be knocked down or will fall down. That’s just the way things are. Ultimately, nothing is spared.
I dare say that we’d all like to freeze time in some way if we could, to tame it, to grasp hold of it. And we all come to realise that time is not freezable or tameable or graspable. Whether we like it or not, things, people, we ourselves, our relationships even, are in a constant state of flux and change.
In a sense life is a process of coming to terms with change. Temperamentally, that may be easier for some than for others but I doubt if there’s anyone for whom change isn’t something that doesn’t cause, or hasn’t caused, unease deep within the psyche.
Not that change is always bad. Sometimes change is good and obviously so. But the fact remains that whatever state we find ourselves in, it will one day come to an end.
In our gospel today, when he’s asked about the great buildings in Jerusalem, Jesus says that ‘not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’. In a way those words are unexceptional. Of course the time was coming when those stones would not remain on top of each other. That’s what happens to buildings. Eventually they totter and fall.
But Jesus isn’t talking about gradual, evolutionary change – he’s talking about change that will happen suddenly and violently. And that is exactly what would happen to Jerusalem about forty years after Jesus’ own execution. The Romans will utterly destroy the city. Its stones will totter and fall – with a little help from their enemies.
Some change is natural and unavoidable. But some change is the result of human egotism, human moral stupidity, human greed – general human wickedness. You could cite war and conflict, you could cite the effects of economic inequality and social injustice. And such changes are all the result of a struggle between human striving for the good and human succumbing to the bad.
We might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair at the sheer perversity of human beings. Jesus says that all these terrible things that are going to happen are but the beginnings of the birth pangs. So the bad news is that there’s more to come but the good news is that they are birth pangs. And these can only be the birth pangs of the kingdom of God.
Which means this: whatever the terrible things we see around us, whatever the changes are that we fear, God is in control and hasn’t abandoned his world.
That, I think, is a real difference that Christian faith makes. It means we can be confident that change and destruction – whether natural or man-made – do not have the last word.
The early Christians expected Christ’s second coming, the triumph of goodness, to happen very soon – in their lifetimes. And of course, as we’ve all no doubt noticed, it didn’t happen, so Christians ever since have been struggling to work out what it all means. Well, it may simply be beyond us to know how things will go in any detail. Speculation is futile, as we can conclude from those who periodically predict the end of the world in a couple of weeks time.
But one thing we can know is that God hasn’t simply given up on us. He hasn’t simply let the forces of destruction rip and abandoned his world. Christian faith, amongst other things, is about trust that this is so. We either trust God or we don’t.
If we do trust in God, then we can be confident that all this change and suffering will not have been in vain.
In the end there’s a stark choice before us – God, or what, without God, are nothing more than the blind forces of destruction. In a way it’s not a choice at all.
In John’s gospel Jesus at one point is deserted by some of his followers and he turns to his core disciples and asks them if they too are going to desert him. Peter answers: ‘To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’. Indeed, to whom else shall we go?