A Sermon from Sherborne
Christ will come again
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 18 November 2018 by The Reverend Robert Green
I wonder if like me you can remember where you were and what you were doing on 11th September 2001 when the news came through of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. I first heard about it on my car radio just before going to visit a family about a Baptism. I wonder if like me you can also remember where you were and what you were doing on 22nd November 1963 which was when President Kennedy was assassinated. These events have had a lasting impact on us all, and to return to the destruction of the Twin Towers, it is worth remembering that two buildings of 110 storeys high collapsed killing nearly 3000, and people watched in disbelief as the buildings crumbled before their very eyes.
Our Gospel this morning [Mark 13.1-8] makes reference to another horrifying event which took place in AD70, some forty years after the Crucifixion. At the time of Jesus’s earthly life, the Temple was still being built, and it was a massive structure. Construction began in Herod the Great’s reign, and it was an immense building, supported by a massive stone platform, the largest ever built by human hands at that time. The Temple was built with giant stones – more than 40 feet long and 12 feet wide, and according to Josephus, a first century Jewish writer. The outward face of the Temple was covered in plates of gold which reflected the sunlight so strongly that people could not bear to look at it. Yet despite its incredible construction, impressive strength, and immense beauty, the Temple was completely razed to the ground; only the Western Wall remains, which is still an impressive sight, especially when you realise the original ground level is some 20 feet lower than that today.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus had been teaching in the Temple, and as they were leaving one of the disciples said to him, “Teacher look at these huge stones and these huge buildings!”
“You see these enormous buildings?” said Jesus. “There will not be one single stone left on top of another. They will all be torn down.” He was right.
Following a revolt by the Jews, the Romans responded with an horrific siege of Jerusalem, which lasted about five months. Josephus claims that over a million perished either through starvation, disease or violence. The Temple was set on fire and demolished in AD 70, and has never been rebuilt.
From the Mount of Olives there would have been a very impressive view of the Temple, a site now occupied by the Golden Dome of the Rock, and the disciples ask Jesus for more details about its destruction, and when it would happen. Jesus does not answer the question directly, but goes on to speak of wars, famines and earthquakes, so how does this relate to the Destruction of the Temple?
The concern of Jesus was to prepare the disciples for what would lie ahead when he was no longer with them. Despite all the chaos and destruction, and that would include the destruction of the Temple, God’s purpose was being worked out. Jesus also wanted to ensure that they did not jump to false conclusions, and assume that because these things were happening the end of the Age was upon them. Jesus referred to these events as the first painful twinges of childbirth – the necessary precursor of what is to come, rather than a sign that the End must be near.
In the last few days we have been remembering the 100th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice which ended the First World War. It was thought to be the war that would end all wars, but ever since there has not been a time when there has not been a conflict somewhere in the world, and we watch in dismay on our television screens at the wanton destruction that aerial bombardment is wreaking day after day. It is tempting to ask where is God in all this? We know that some of the soldiers caught up in the carnage of the First World War lost their faith through what they witnessed. Is God now powerless to work in our modern world? Jesus encourages us that this is not the case. He warns that such events would be part of life, and yet our hope can still remain strong.
Recently I read about the church in the Diocese of Kuching in Malaysia where the Bishop writes:
“We strive, but we are struggling: many churches, including my own, have been set on fire and stones have been thrown at us; a pastor was kidnapped and he is still missing. In church we are not allowed to say God’s name in the national language. Even so the church is growing. In Kuching Diocese, we have grown from 20 to 40 parishes, with around 650 worship centres. We especially need youth pastors due to a large number of young people in church”.
Despite this outright persecution and oppression of Christians, God is at work, and just as the pains of labour in childbirth end in joy, so one day this suffering will pass. Christ is coming again, and a new era will begin. The pains of labour are a sign that there will be a new birth. How Jesus spoke about this helps us strike a balance between the two extremes. There is a warning against reading signs of his imminent return in every disaster that happens, as many have in the past. But on the other hand we need to remember that we live in a temporary world. Herod’s Temple was a sight to behold, but at the end of the day it was only a building; a material object, and only a few years after its completion it would lie in ruins. Our security is not to be found in material things, which can never last for ever. Whereas God’s Kingdom is everlasting.
One day this suffering will pass. Jesus will return, and God’s purposes will have been fulfilled, and this we will affirm in this Eucharist. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”.