17 November 2013
St Mary’s Hadlow
Second Sunday before Advent
2 Thess 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
May I speak this morning in the name of God, whom we know and worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On the 11th September 2001 I was working as a solicitor in the City of London. The day began unremarkably enough with my usual walk from Liverpool Street to my office opposite St Pauls Cathedral. On my way I walked past Tower 42, or the Nat West Tower as it used to be called, and its huge presence dominating the streets below gave it a real sense of stability, permanence and presence. But of course no one paid it any real heed that morning because it was just one of those things that had always been there, and would always be there.
Just after lunch that day, at about 2 o’clock, the first vague reports started coming through of unusual events taking place in New York. Then the BBC news website reported that a plane had hit one of the twin towers and myself and my colleagues went into a boardroom to watch the news unfold on TV. And of course we watched events unfold horrifically from there – a second plane hit the other tower, there were reports of another plane flying into the pentagon, another plane had crashed into the ground, there were rumours about possibly dozens of other planes being hijacked. Then of course the twin towers collapsed and that afternoon it felt as though the world had gone mad. There was real fear that London might come under similar attack and we were encouraged to leave work early.
Walking back to Liverpool Street was a very different experience from walking in that morning. Although everyone was trying to be very English you could tell that most people, including me, were looking at the skies more than we were looking at the pavement. And walking past Tower 42 was almost terrifying. Everyone had already been evacuated from it and the streets around it were almost empty. When you looked up at it you couldn’t help but imagine a plane flying into the side of it and then seeing it collapse filling those familiar streets with rubble and clouds of dust. It truly felt as though all permanence and stability had disappeared from the world, and everything we took for granted as simply being there could no longer be relied upon. I expect that for those of you who may have experienced bombing in the war that will be a feeling with which you are familiar but, for my generation at least, I think that that day had a huge impact on our lives, and of course the shock waves are still reverberating today.
In today’s gospel some of the disciples were commenting on the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem – they were remarking on its beautiful adornments and the gifts dedicated to God. In Mark’s version of these events the disciples say:
“Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
You can hear the ring of a country person going up to London for the first time and being overawed by Tower 42, or the gherkin and now, of course, the Shard. And, for the most part, the disciples were country people – some of them were fishermen from Galilee who probably spent most of their lives on their small boats and off-loading their catch at tiny villages. Now suddenly they were right at the centre of things and the Temple in Jerusalem was undoubtedly a huge and awe-inspiring building. After all it was built not only for the worship of God, like a huge Cathedral, but it was built also to house the very presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was a building totally designed to overwhelm the senses and it doubtless felt like the epitome of permanence and stability.
But Jesus was quick to dismiss such illusions:
“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
The disciples, not unnaturally, want to know when this is amazing event is going to take place. Jesus does not give them a date for their diaries but, rather, tells them to look out for the signs of the times:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
Only forty years after Jesus’ death the uneasy relationship between the Jews and the Romans broke down into rebellion and suppression and the event Jesus predicted took place – the temple on the mount was almost entirely destroyed, leaving the remnant now known as the Wailing Wall. It must have felt like the end of the world for the Jews as the centre of their world, the very dwelling place of God, was destroyed.
And for the last 2000 years Christians have been reading the signs of the times, as set out in today’s reading and in many other places in the gospels, and trying to work out exactly when the promised return of Christ and the end of time is to take place. We will doubtless all be familiar with stories of various groups who claim to know the exact time and date and who hole themselves up in expectation of the apocalypse. When the predicted time has come and gone they emerge blinking into the daylight slightly disappointed to see that the world is continuing. I don’t know about you but I have seen fewer predictions from Christian groups in recent years but we have been treated to a mish-mash of Nostradamus and the Mayan Calendar and the most recent end of the world was supposed to take place on 21 December last year. I tell you, I had to do some pretty rapid Christmas shopping on the 22nd.
Of course the point is that we don’t know when God plans to bring creation to its fulfilment and it is a supreme waste of time trying to work it out. But that doesn’t mean that the end times are irrelevant. On the contrary we are living in the end times now and we, as a church, have been living in the end times since the resurrection and ascension of Christ and we will continue to live in the end times until his return in God’s own time. That may happen today, it may happen in 1000 years or it may happen in a billion years when our sun reaches the end of its life and expands to fill the solar system. The wars and rumour of wars that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD were part of the end times, the first world war, the second world war, the fall of the twin towers and even the tsumanis, earthquakes and hurricanes are all signs that creation is groaning in expectation of the new heaven and the new earth that is to come.
But even if the end of the end times is one billion years away nevertheless for each of us here today we could face our own end times at any time. Like Adam we were formed from the dust of creation and like the temple on the mount or the twin towers we can all be called to return to dust and ashes at any time and thence to meet our creator. We are all much less permanent here than we like to imagine.
Our building, our possessions and even our own lives are only transitory and any sense of permanence or security that they give us is an illusion. So what are we to do? There is only one thing to do and that is to cling to God, the only permanent thing in the universe, and to avoid being led astray by all that seeks to offer us false security away from God. Jesus said:
“Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he,’ and ‘the time is near,’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions do not be frightened. These things must happen first but the end will not come right away.”
And how are we to cling onto God and avoid being led astray? Well the answer to that would fill another 1000 sermons but my three top tips for today are (1) to have confidence in the faith we profess in the knowledge that by standing firm in the face of persecution you gain life, (2) not to believe everything that you read on the internet, especially in relation to the end of the world and (3) as our reading from Thessalonians said at the end: “Never tire of doing what is right.” We don’t need to worry about the big picture, the big timeframe because it is totally outside both our knowledge and control. But we can control the type of people that we are and if we never tire of doing what is right then it would both change the world in the here and now but it would also mean that when we came to our own end of time we would know that we had done all we could to be the people God made us to be.
So Sisters and Brothers in Christ let’s not put our faith in large buildings, in pension schemes or even in our own longevity. But let us never tire of doing right in the knowledge and trust that love alone is the motivating force behind the whole of creation and that it is love that will take us home to our maker at our own end of times – our love for one another, our love of God but most importantly God’s love for us shown in Jesus Christ our Lord.