Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 30 October 2011
30 October 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
The saying, “Be careful what you ask for” has achieved the status of a modern proverb in the English language – from the self-help manuals beloved of late 20th Century western culture to the songs of Eminem, this rather obvious warning is an oft-heard phrase, responded to by sage noddings of heads throughout the English speaking world. “Be careful what you ask for.”
The excitable disciples in today’s Gospel ask Jesus, “When will the Temple be destroyed? What’s more, what will be the sign of your coming? And what about the ends of the age? When? How? We want to know – tell us!” We know from a fair number of contemporary sources that Messianic hope was high in first century Jerusalem, especially around Passover and Yom Kippur, as a huge variety of predictions abounded about the end of Roman Rule, the coming of the mysterious figure known from the Book of Daniel as the Son of Man, and longed-for victory of the chosen people over those who had oppressed or polluted them. “When, how, why, tell us?” must have been questions which rebounded off the walls of Jerusalem, and whistled around its tiny streets. The Jewish historian Josephus calculates that there were 3 million Jews in Jerusalem at Passover time: an astronomic figure to be contained within the tiny, fragile Old City, even if one appreciates that Josephus is probably exaggerating. It is not only the disciples of Jesus who were hoping for the fulfilment of God’s reign, the culmination of the covenant, rather the gospel writers report to us one glimpse an enormously wide-variety of first century Jewish hopes.
The idea that the destruction of the Temple should be part of this culmination must have been a terrifying prediction for Jesus’ followers – the warning that the Temple might once again be destroyed was for the Jews an unthinkable disaster. This centre of God’s communication with humanity, the focus of God’s holiness and the absolute encapsulation of Jewish identity was treasured and protected almost beyond our understanding. Indeed when the final siege eventually came in AD 70, such was the catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple, that it was only the exegetical ingenuity of the emerging Rabbis which saved and reinterpreted the Jewish religion. And yet, Jesus’ promise in today’s Gospel is that all will be thrown down, as part of his own prediction about the fulfilment of God’s promises. Didn’t this sound like the breaking of the covenant, the abandonment of God’s people? Surely, the prophets had interpreted earlier disasters as somehow playing a part in the great sweep of salvation history – but that was then, not now. And as we know in our own lives, its much easier to theorise and remember the past, than to experience and trust in the present.
But, it doesn’t end with Jesus’ multi-layered prophecy about the Temple – I say multi-layered because of course he is also using the image to refer to his own death and resurrection – it is only later that the disciples realise that in these so-called “Temple sayings” Jesus is often referring to the Temple which is his own body being pulled down, destroyed, rebuilt. It doesn’t end there. The disciples ask more. “When, how, what will be the sign of your coming?”, they enquire. Jesus replies – confusion, wars and rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes, torture and martyrdom, betrayal, chaos. In short, Jesus predicts – indeed promises – disorientation. A disorientation into a strange world, where comforts are stripped away, where familiar platitudes no longer work. Jesus encourages an endurance which is not passive discipleship, but a willingness to throw oneself into the process of disorientation, with trust and hope. Maybe only thus will disciples then and now begin to understand what Jesus means when he says that we will save our life by losing it, and that the light shines most clearly at the heart of the darkness.
“How, why when?” The disciples doubtless excitedly babble. “Well, you did ask…” Jesus could perhaps be forgiven for replying. I want us to stay with this process of disorientation for a moment, and to ask what this disorientation in the face of our questions might offer each of us on our journey of faith. For every human being, there will be times of great trial, times of pain, times when hopes fail, and when we feel our world inverted. Times of disorientation. There’s no point in being glib about this. For some, the experience of great suffering or fear, can just be too much for faith to survive. But holding on, finding whatever it is that helps us endure as Jesus says, and doing that honestly, rather than retreating into a fantasy world, will hone and shape our discipleship in ways that renew us at very deep levels indeed.
The language of apocalyptic has not always been deployed very well by the Church: the old blackmail rhetoric of fire and brimstone is pastorally unhelpful, and on its own, is deeply theologically dubious. But the strangeness of it all, the way in which such images can be used as deep metaphors for the disorientation of our faith, can be extremely helpful. We live in a very active world, where the depth of our obsessive need to be in control is as real, as it is facile. The disorientation which we sometimes experience in relation to our faith, in relation to the future of the Universe, and in our own lives, is an appropriate balance to this. Unless we learn to let go of our constant need to be in control of our own destiny, our constant chasing after certainty, we will not be able to experience the full depth of Christ’s love. God’s future is at its very heart, a gift to be received, to be surrendered to in faith and love, knowing that the victory of Jesus Christ will heal our wounds, transform our world and answer our deepest needs in ways that we can only dimly perceive. This is a wisdom which is best communicated by the poets, rather than the preachers, perhaps most beautifully by TS Eliot, towards the end of his Little Gidding.
The life and love we seek,
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).
That is discipleship. A condition of complete simplicity. A free gift, costing not less than everything. Disorientating, isn’t it? But we do, after all, pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come.” It is in the promise of this Kingdom that we can face wars and rumours of wars. In the half-heard stillness of the Love of Christ, between the waves of the sea, that we hear the insistent, repeated whisper that Jesus Christ has trampled down death, by death.