Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Don’t worry: you haven’t missed out on Christmas, but today I need to tell you the year comes to an end next week. Not the calendar year, of course, but the Church year. And it will end on a note of triumph as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This is one of two or three key points in the year when our three churches come together for a Team Service. This year, we are pleased to be hosting it at St. John’s. But before we get there, the readings we hear at this time of the year, as the old year dies away, turn our attention towards what are often called the ‘end times’, rounding off the Christian calendar with some apocalyptic images – an absolute gift for doom-mongers and the ‘end of the world is nigh’ brigade. And, dare I say it, not entirely inappropriate in the context of Brexit turmoil….
In today’s readings, for example, the short passage from the Book of Daniel, speaks of ‘a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence’. It is tempered, though, by a promise of deliverance for those whose focus is on seeking wisdom and righteousness. But then in Mark’s Gospel, we are given an image of tremendous upheaval: ‘nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; [and there will be] great earthquakes and famines in various places’. It all sounds rather too contemporary, doesn’t it? The benighted people of Paradise, California certainly need no reminding of it this week. Nor do persecuted Christian communities in the Near and Middle East. And, tragically, nor do countless numbers of people in Syria, Yemen and numerous other places of conflict. For so many in our world, a brighter future seems little more than a pipe dream. It may indeed sometimes feel more like the end of the world.
The reality is, of course, that it has sounded precisely like that to every age that has heard such words. And yet for those who decided that their age was the last one, and went up to mountain tops to greet the Lord, having given up homes and livelihoods, even their own families, disappointment has always been their reward, for the world never ends when they think it will! Concluding that these words are not a clue to the process of history, especially the end of the world, many readers have tended to disregard them altogether, and they have become the preserve of offbeat sects and cults. Biblical threats against sinners that never pan out begin to sound too much like the old story of the little boy who cried ‘wolf’ too many times; most people stop listening….
But rather than discard them altogether, perhaps the challenge to present-day Christians is how to incorporate the sense of urgency contained in these passages into our contemporary spirituality. That can begin with an acknowledgement of what today’s Gospel is actually about. It is nothing at all to do with the end of the world, but is everything to do with the context in which Mark’s Gospel was written. The author appears to possess some knowledge about the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, and the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in the year 70. For the Jews, this must have felt very much like there was nothing left to live for, because the Temple was so central to their identity, their religion and their community life. Once it was destroyed, surely the end of the world really was nigh, just a matter of time. We should also bear in mind that the early Christians expected Jesus to return imminently, so the signs the Gospel describes were actually the prelude to his arrival and the establishment of the kingdom. Notice they referred to as the ‘birth pangs’.
The passage we read today can be taken as a model for anyone peering into an uncertain future, needing to find firm ground when everything is crashing down around your ears. Christians – and others – in many parts of the world live daily with wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines, purges and persecution. We who don’t should count our blessings and read passages like this in solidarity with those who do, because we can never be sure when it might be our turn. Besides, perhaps a church which is not being persecuted should also ask itself the hard question: why not? If the radical nature of the Gospel isn’t leading to a persecuted church, maybe the church isn’t being sufficiently faithful to the Gospel; maybe it is not challenging the status quo half enough.
I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the stories of resilience, courage, and sheer determination in the living out of the life of faith, against all the odds, where Christians face harassment, betrayal, arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. What Jesus appears to be asking of his followers in this passage is an almost impossible insistence to get on with the task before us, and not to concern ourselves with the heady excitement of speculating about the future, about things we cannot know. And Jesus himself is the exemplar, because at this stage in the Gospel, tension is visibly mounting and the terrible climax in Jerusalem is already clearly in sight. But Jesus himself does not give up. Quite the contrary, he goes on urging people to continue striving towards his vision of what the Gospel writers call the kingdom of God.
The overwhelming message from today’s readings is: even when things are at their worst, and despite the fact it’s easier said than done, don’t give up. Get on with life and with living as best you are able, seek after peace, justice, reconciliation and all that leads to human flourishing, and doggedly insist that there is a future to look towards and to strive for. We cannot avoid the reality that anguish, pain and death are central to the Jesus story. But the good news is they do not have the final word. Gethsemane and Golgotha must cede to the garden of resurrection. In the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, it is life and it is love that will win out.