Second Sunday before Advent 2016
Perhaps the use of the word “Apocalyptic” is so overworked nowadays that we just close our eyes and our ears, which is a sad thing to do, for in Scripture the apocalyptic is a serious Jewish tradition and it is more than merely looking at tea leaves and proclaiming the bloody and tearful end of the world! It is a wakeup call and Luke tells it to us as an introduction to Holy Week and, much more importantly, a warning that following Jesus for each and every one will involve pain, misunderstanding and worse.
In the year 70 AD the great temple, built by Herod, was destroyed and the Jewish exile from the Holy Land really began. Was this judgement? There were those who thought it was, as there are those to this day who try and see every act of violence, whether an earthquake or a tram crash to be some divine, with a very small “d”, retribution. However, for the Christian there will be many trials and persecutions over which many suffered and died and wars come into this condemnation which cannot be explained or used as a vehicle for blame. This passage accepts wars as being part of the fallen world in which followers of Jesus are going to get caught up.
In a couple of hours there will be a solemn remembrance of all who have died in wars – 17 million in 1914-1918, 40 million in 1939-45 for that, much more than 1914, was a total war. I was eight in 1939 and can still remember the sundering of families as children were encouraged to leave London, then after some three months came back to the darkness of the blackout and the bombing attacks of the early 1940s as civilian casualties mounted. Think of Coventry, the London docklands, Dresden, Leipzig and the many other places and people destroyed. We have made heroes of the dam busters but if the Germans had been able to do it, they could have destroyed Sheffield, or even Huddersfield by emptying the reservoirs and causing huge floods and this was indiscriminate slaughter which reached its climax in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All this and more is remembered today, for this is not a victory parade and anyone who has experienced active military life knows of the longing for there to be another way to preserving life and living together other than killing each other. Of course there will always be differences but killing people is not going to achieve this any more than hanging petty thieves on a gibbet and leaving the bodies to rot was any sort of preventative.
Between the two wars of the twentieth century there was but 20 years, in the 71 years since 1945, there have been almost continual skirmishes and bigger events when countries or factions within countries have sought supremacy with bigger and more effective weapons and we shelter under the comfortably named not Ministry for War but the Ministry of Defence!
So it is a sad and bewildered world that we inhabit. Regular employment for many is long forgotten and we have recently heard the voice of the many and when all who are thought to be able to do something don’t want to know.
From the Tolpuddle Martyrs through the years there have been protests, lives have been sacrificed and sometimes something is achieved. Pope Francis is giving a lead in his option for the poor but there is a long way still to go; it feels that our entire societal structure has been “weighed in the balance and found wanting”.
God made the world and, because he made it, it is good but one of the great things that makes it good is freedom – and that opens the door to power. Jesus was killed when the leaders of the Jewish community under the Roman government had no authority to execute him, so Pontius Pilate had to order crucifixion.
I know it might sound a bit well-worn and dumb but pray, not for ourselves (unless we have some spare prayer time) but pray for those in authority that, unlike the high priests and Pilate, they might be strong and long for peace. I am not thinking of those National Days of prayer in the war when we prayed for success but rather prayer for all sorts and conditions of mankind, not by getting bogged down in complicated lists but by saying the office with intentions, praying our way through the newspapers, sharing our bewilderment with Jesus who certainly did not have easy slick answers to every question he was asked.
Solely by virtue of our Baptism we are members of the people of God and people whose vocation is primarily to lift up Jesus that all might be drawn to him. That is our task.
A story to end with. The scene is a Japanese prison full of prisoners of war, mostly English caught in the fall of Singapore. Conditions were bleak, amenities nil, brutality commonplace. Among the prisoners was a young man from somewhere in the West Midlands. He was a good churchman, organist and altar server and if fortune had been kinder to him would quite likely have been a student at our hostel on the way to ordination instead of the living hell of a Japanese prison. However, he did not sink into misery and despair, as so many did, his cheerfulness and sanity helped all. He seemed older than his years and even the guards recognised his special quality. He didn’t appear to hate them, after all they were conscripts too. Then he became ill, a commonplace where medication was rare and medical attention non-existent and after a long time of great suffering born indomitably, he peacefully died. Word got round of his funeral and virtually all the mobile inmates of two prisons, next door to one another, attended, wearing out of respect their one and only shirt. Somehow the funeral service reflectyed his unassuming faith in the certainty of God’s love. At least one prisoner was profoundly affected by this young man’s life and death and from that moment until his own death some sixty years later, he was a sincere and devout churchman and known to be so. In this young man we see enacted the last sentence of today’s Gospel: “By your endurance you will save your souls”. Note please that the final ”s” isn’t a typo; the souls are really in plural, for by that young man’s endurance many souls were touched and some saved.