Sermon - 18th November 2012
Keep the faith and carry on!
Scripture - Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13:1-13
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Setting the Scene 1
It is not uncommon in Manchester to see street preachers on Saturdays. There are two or three regulars who wander up and down Market Street. Some have huge boards with Biblical texts on, others make abundant use of loud speakers. Last week we were treated to one in Chester. I have no idea how effective they are, but Ian tells me being effective isn’t the point. They believe themselves called to preach and if they are heckled, ignored or insulted it’s all proof, in their eyes, that they are being faithful to God.
There are two main themes for street preachers – one is to urge people to repent, to turn to Christ and seek forgiveness of their sins, the other does this but adds, often with a certain glee, messages about the #End of the World being nigh with admonitions to flee the judgement which is to come. When I holiday in Northern Ireland I see a lot more of the second type of preaching than the first but it’s seen here on the streets too.
There is a vein of fundamentalist Christianity which is very concerned with the End of the World and what happens next. There is a huge interest in this in America – where fundamentalist Christianity is more widespread and where a whole literary genre of “left behind” fiction is read widely. These books have Jesus’ Second Coming as their starting place and his elect have gone to “meet him in the air” as Wesley’s hymn describes it. The books then follow those poor souls who are left behind. But even in British fundamentalism there has always been a strong interest in the “End Times” and Jesus’ return. Some look to world events and see in them signs that the end is, indeed, nigh.
For some Christians the re-establishment of the State of Israel was a sign that the End was coming and for others the wars and conflict in Israel is seen not in terms of security, justice, land and freedom but as the prefiguring of the conflict of the End. Back in the 1980s President Reagan publicly contemplated that his finger on the nuclear button might be part of God’s plan for the End times – his advisors quickly backtracked on that comment.
However, one doesn’t need to look so far to the right as President Reagan to see people who look at the wars and rumours of wars, the famines, the destruction caused by changing weather patterns and political unrest and interpret these things in an apocalyptic way seeing them as signs of the End. In times of great change people can feel uncertain about how to navigate that change.
The last 30 years have seen greater changes in technology than ever before. As a teenager I remember saving up to buy a computer – a Sinclair ZX81. It was exciting, uber cool, and virtually useless compared to the computers we have now. It had a tiny memory of just one kilobyte and if you paid another £50 you could put a memory extension on the back to take it up to 16k. That’s less memory than most pocket calculators have now. You saved programmes on a tape recorder – which took forever, and the screen was your TV. Mobile phones used to be cumbersome devices, now they are small, sleek and are mini computers that connect to the internet.
Political change is fast and furious in many places in Europe where the economic policies of previous governments are coming home to roost, widespread migration of peoples brings about change that some rejoice in and others aren’t so sure about.
It’s a normal religious response, in times of great change and uncertainty to offer simple answers to complex religious questions.
Setting the Scene 2
The compiler of Mark’s Gospel was clearly aware of this religious response as he lived in a time of great change too. He was compiling his Gospel from various sources he had – stories that had been told about Jesus, either in written or oral form and he wrote these in, so the scholars think, either in the 60s or early 70s. Jesus’ ministry was in the 30s.
There is a debate, based on today’s Gospel reading, about whether Mark was written after the Destruction of the Temple in AD70. In any event, the Gospel was written some 30 or so years after Jesus’ ministry, for the needs of the church. Mark’s readers lived in a brutal age of Empire where there was only one world superpower, where political opposition to Roman rule was brutally crushed and where peace was kept through force of arms and war.
For Jewish people there would have been the huge change of seeing Israel invaded by Rome, the Temple destroyed through fire, and any sense of a Jewish state gone totally. The Jewish nation was bound together by the worship of the One God of the Bible, and the Temple was the centre of that worship. Only there could sacrifices be offered, only in the Temple was God thought to live on earth – in the Holy of Holies which only the High Priest could enter and then only on one day a year. To see this huge Temple destroyed was a catastrophe for the Jewish people and would have shaken them.
The Temple was, in addition to its religious significance a huge, imposing building built of huge blocks of stone and was a marvellous feat of engineering. No other building in Israel would have matched it in terms of size, grandeur or technical skill. There is no modern equivalent in terms of both religious and architectural significance but Jesus’ words about the building being destroyed would seem as mad as if a street preacher foretold the imminent destruction of the Beetham Tower here in Manchester. If someone said that we’d think they were a little potty.
What’s the Point?
So what is the point of this passage and the one we heard earlier from Daniel? Both passages are from a particular Biblical literary genre called apocalyptic. This type of literature is about revealing the substance of a vision which related to contemporary events and but seeks to reveal a future in which God would be the guide and refuge. It was a form of writing designed to give solace during periods of oppression or difficulty when direct reference to the people oppressing or causing the problems was difficult or dangerous. The most famous example in the Bible is the Book of Revelation – a favourite with fundamentalists interested in the End of the World! There are aspects of these characteristics in both our readings today but that isn’t the whole story. They are designed to give solace in difficult times but I think the passage from Mark is designed to dampen down speculation about the End of the World rather than to stoke it up.
One of the particular contexts of the Early Christians was that they believed Jesus would return imminently. That’s why the Gospels weren’t written until 30 or so years after Jesus’ ministry – after all if he was about to return, the work of proclamation was far more important than writing a Gospel. Mark is written for the first generation of Christians who had to realise that Jesus’ return wasn’t imminent and who had to deal with the deaths of the first generation of witnesses who had known Jesus, or the apostles, directly. So that was another change they had to deal with. Mark also wrote for the church in Rome – a church at the heart of the Empire and in a time when persecutions of Christians were starting.
Calm down and carry on!
So it is likely that the compiler of Mark had a number of different fish to fry with his Gospel. This was a time of great change – Jewish converts would, like their Jewish friends be shocked and scandalised by the Roman invasion of Israel and the senseless destruction of the Temple ending any hope of an independent Jewish state. They had to cope with the death of the earliest leaders of the Church and with the realisation that Jesus’ return wasn’t imminent. They had to deal with the start of Roman persecutions of them for not taking part in the Imperial cult and the consequent perception that they were treacherous.
In the midst of these dreadful things: great change, huge calamities, wars and rumours of war, famine, persecution Jesus reminds us that it is our faith in God which will see us through. It’s not the end of the world but it is a test of faith. Mark seeks to offer his readers hope in a time of great change – a hope that is founded on a deep experience of God’s loving kindness.
The challenge for us, then, reading and pondering this passage nearly 2,000 years later, is to take Mark’s insights and apply them to our own contexts. It’s not so hard: humanity still experiences change, wars, rumours of war, and the rest. Religious people always seek to graft interpretations on these things which stoke up apocalyptic tension.
I think we apply the “keep calm and carry on trusting in God” message which is the key to these passages. It’s about seeing how our faith nurtures and sees us through the difficult and challenging changes we see in life:-
- Some changes come unexpectedly – a loved one dies, a partner walks out, a friend or lover proves themselves not to be what we expected and we are left reeling from it all.
- Then there is the change that comes from with living with our own, or another’s, catastrophic illness. Physical, or mental, illness can be draining, demanding and debilitating for both the sufferer and those who live with and care for them. Both the person who is ill and the people who care for them may feel “this isn’t what I signed up for” and have to deal with that change – a change which is forced upon them.
- Then there is the change of redundancy or retirement: both changes which profoundly affect how we see and value ourselves. So much of our identity is bound up with our work and to lose our work has implications not only for our finances but for our very sense of self and again it’s a change which is not one that we welcome.
- There are the changes of age where we don’t feel any older but find that we can’t do as much as we once could, that wounds take a little longer to heal, that joints don’t seem so supple anymore, that reactions slow down. Our bodies change all the time but we’re not always rejoicing in this particular change!
- Then there are the changes that we choose and produce. This is where we decide to no longer passively accept the way things are but seek to bring some changes to our lives, our church, our relationships, which are for the better. There are times when we all realise that we can make some changes, we can find the courage to change a dynamic in a relationship, end a bad friendship, try and change a job or enhance it, change the balance in a family which has become harmful.
The challenge is to see how our faith in God, our trust in His loving kindness, can help us as we seek to cope, understand, analyse and bring about change.
As Christians we are called to have faith in God. This is not so much about giving intellectual assent to a series of propositions but about trusting God. I have faith in my partner, I have faith that he won’t betray me, that he will love me, often despite myself. Having faith in each other is about holding firmly to and trusting each other.
So we have faith in God, we hold fast to God, we remain faithful to Him knowing that his loving kindness gives us the energy, wit and wisdom to navigate – and indeed make – the changes that come in life. Jesus assured his followers that he would be with them to the End of the age, and this is a promise we hold fast to as we deal with the complex changes that come to us in life. We hold fast to God and use the changes that come to make our world, our lives, and our relationships better.