In a world battered by wars and terror, forgiveness and peace must ultimately prevail
Stephen Adam, 18 November 2018
Hebrews 10: 11–14, 19–25; Mark 13: 1–8
In this season heavy with remembrance – from our celebration of All Saints’ Day and our commemoration of All Souls’, to Remembrance Sunday itself – one particular element among the welter of imaginative and moving events to mark the centenary of the Armistice stood out for me. It was a programme on the BBC – some of you may have seen it – by the New Zealand film director Peter Jackson. Over 600 hours of film footage from the Imperial War Museum archive had been painstakingly edited, digitally re-mastered to remove the jerkiness and skilfully colourised.
The effect was mesmerising, bringing the events of the First World War to life with an immediacy and vitality that was breathtaking. No longer were we looking at the ghosts of history, but people we could overhear and relate to – people just like us. In its intensity and unsparing colour the film brought home what Wilfred Owen called ‘the pity of war’. It invites the questions of us: Why? Where will it all end?
War and violence has continued unsparingly – the Russian Revolution, World War Two, the unspeakable barbarities of the Holocaust before which all words are empty, and then the continuing roll call of tragedies: Korea, Vietnam, the conflicts in the Middle East with the greatest mass movement of refugees since 1945 – and always that same question: When will it all end?
When will we see God’s kingdom fully realised with justice and peace? That cry of the early Christian community ‘Maranatha’ – ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ – is still ours today.
Today’s gospel reading invites us to gaze upon Jerusalem – that small patch of ground, the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths, bitterly contested through 3,000 years of history – a place Aldous Huxley termed ‘the slaughterhouse of religions’; Jerusalem, that strange semi-mystical place, the point where heaven and earth meet, the source of endless speculation about Judgement Day.
And so the disciples with Jesus gaze upon the Temple; how solid and huge it seemed. Surely this could never be shaken? For the Jewish people the Temple was much more than a building: it was the holiest of holies, the place where God was encountered, and it was the physical embodiment of their national identity. Surely it would not pass away?
Mark portrays Jesus speaking of its destruction, and indeed in Mark’s day in AD 70 the Temple would be brutally desecrated by the army of the Roman emperor Titus, the booty taken to Rome, much of the city destroyed and thousands killed or taken into slavery. With this catastrophe came the collapse of Jewish aspirations, an event seared into the minds of Jewish people ever since. So devastating would these events be that it’s no surprise that when Peter, James, John and Andrew ask Jesus when this would happen, they couple it in their minds with the end of time itself.
Perhaps the nearest parallel that comes to mind today is those haunting clouds of dust covering the fleeing people of New York as the Twin Towers collapsed around them. It seemed an assault on western civilisation itself.
But note that Jesus does not answer their question. The disciples ask a factual question: ‘When?’ We have to read the whole of chapter 13 for the full sense of Jesus’ response, but his reply is moral, not factual: ‘What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (verse 37). Jesus’ purpose is not to provide a timetable – some kind of countdown to Armageddon, a series of predictions capable of being ticked off one by one.
There was fevered apocalyptic speculation about the end time in Jesus’ day – just as there still is today with those street preachers predicting ‘The end is nigh!’ – but Jesus is having none of that. His aim is not to publish a programme of the end of history – indeed, verse 32 records Jesus saying, ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. Instead, his words are a moral imperative about how we should live today. In the words of the hymn, ‘Live this day as if ’twere thy last’.
Jesus’ purpose is not to provide some kind of countdown to Armageddon; instead, his words are a moral imperative about how we should live today.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest, most direct, and intense of the four gospels. Mark has an urgent message to impart and it’s incendiary. It’s about nothing less than the overthrowing of the old order and regime change! It’s about how the world will look radically different.
Go to the very beginning of Mark. In chapter one there are no preliminaries, no birth narrative; instead, the words, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ … The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (verses 1, 15).
Jesus’ earthly ministry demonstrates the inauguration of this new kingdom, culminating in the clash with the old order of the Temple authorities. And then the narrative shifts and we realise the grievous cost of establishing this new kingdom, this new relationship between God and his creation, with the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus.
As the Temple tradition of worship developed, so God had become restricted – the Temple was hemmed in by ritual and incredible legalism. Instead of being inclusive, it had become exclusive, the daily sacrifices offered by the priests partial and inadequate. In Jesus we discover the new Temple, the true dwelling place of God.
Our first reading from Hebrews explores this. The theology of Hebrews is dense and complicated, but at its heart is the understanding that the law has proved inadequate and that in the person of Jesus Christ, in his once-and-for-all-time sacrifice on the cross, God has established a new covenant, a new relationship with his people. And next Sunday, with the festival of Christ the King, the culmination of our liturgical year, we will celebrate that kingship and lordship.
You see, unlike the countless big events in history that dominate or define an era or form the life experience of a generation, the person of Jesus Christ is not just a distant figure now lost in the mists of history. For Christians he is the prism through which all history is defined. In a sense he stands outside history, proclaiming through the cross and resurrection God’s judgement on human history. And at the heart of that judgement lies forgiveness and peace. These must ultimately prevail, because that is inescapably the very nature of God.
For Christians Jesus Christ is the prism through which all history is defined.
Yes, we look to the risen, glorified Christ, now seated ‘at the right hand of God’, as the author of Hebrews portrays (10: 12), but this Christ still bears those wounds in his tortured flesh, in his hands, his side, his feet. It’s a reminder that God shares the pain, the suffering and the torment of the world. At the heart of this creation, lovingly brought into being by God, is self-giving love.
And that kingdom, that lordship, will ultimately be realised not by force or violence, but by us being watchful and modelling our common life on the enduring values demonstrated by Jesus – by what the poet Wordsworth called, ‘the little unremembered acts/of kindness and of love’.
And so, from that broader perspective looking at the events of history through the lens of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, we can still see a world battered by wars and terror, by inhumanity, by environmental threat, by poverty, degradation and exploitation; but we can see all this and not despair.
That’s not because we’re naïve, but because our view of history is coloured vividly by resurrection hope. Violence and death are not the ultimate definition of human history. The love and faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus Christ will abide and prevail.
To conclude, the final verses of our reading from Hebrews this morning:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.