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Sunday 13 November 2016; Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 65:17-25; 2
It is wonderful to finally be here among you in beautiful south Canberra (north Canberra’s best kept secret). The only real downside for us in being here has been the whole nasty business of moving house – something we’ve done lots of times before, but which I continue to hate with every fibre of my being.
Apart from all the messiness of boxes and removalists and changing internet plans, there is also the emotionally taxing business of saying goodbye to old places and old friends we won’t see as much anymore.
But that’s not the only big change recently. You may have noticed there was an election overseas during the week. Personally, I prefer to tread very fairly cautiously when it comes to discussing politics from the pulpit – it’s important to be respectful of difference and the reality of diverse political views.
However, it’s hard not to at least acknowledge the feeling of shock many of us are feeling in light of the surprise result. For my money, this seems to represent a very definite disruption – and not in a good way – in world affairs. In my more depressive moments, the word apocalyptic has crossed my mind.
Which brings us to today’s gospel reading.
Here, Jesus is speaking of a coming dramatic, disruptive change. Bigger than the election of Trump. Bigger, even, than the McLennan family moving house.
When some were speaking about the Temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’.
What he’s describing is the unthinkable ruin of a seeming indestructible reality. He’s speaking inside the precinct of the great Temple. And I agree with those who think that his words here are not a description of the end of the world, but of the end of the Temple. The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Roman army happened a generation later in AD 70. This wasn’t the end of the world, although it would have felt like it.
For if anything seemed permanent, surely the Temple did. The Temple was the fulfilment of God’s promise to King David – the evidence that Yahweh dwelt with his people. Sure, it had been destroyed before by the Babylonians, but it had been rebuilt with great fanfare, and on a truly gigantic and majestic scale, under Herod the Great. Yet Jesus here, controversially, says it will be torn down.
It’s hard to believe that some things really aren’t permanent. Especially when those things are a given by God and we have received them as tokens of his presence.
As I begin my ministry here, I can’t help but think how the situation Jesus describes applies to the situation the church faces. I commented at my induction on Wednesday night how these are very difficult days for Christian communities, and for Christian ministry. I really don’t think we’ve understood, yet, the extent to which the ground has shifted, and is continuing to shift, underneath us.
The church once seemed powerful and influential. Close to the centre of things. And it seemed so permanent.
But it wasn’t. Under the surface, things were changing. In the last century, people identifying as Christian have dropped from 96% to 61% of the Australian population.
But if we look at actual church attendance – i.e. those whose Christianity matters enough to get them out of bed on a Sunday – it’s even worse news. In the last 40 years, the numbers have more than halved. And we’re starting to realise that people won’t just drift back into church the way they drifted out; but that we are now on something like an emergency footing – or at least a missionary one.
A whole belief system has dissolved before our eyes. The belief in the goodness of God and God’s creation; the God-given value and dignity of all people; the sense that we can face the future full of hope and joy. These are no longer widely shared beliefs. The great edifice that was ‘the Christian consensus’ – is being pulled down. It’s potentially deeply unsettling.
But if we ever thought the old days were permanent, Jesus punctures our assumptions with the prophetic challenge:
not one stone will be left on another.
The dream of permanence was always and only ever a dream. Pretty much everything that we assume is here to stay will come tumbling down.
And indeed, he says, in the meantime, there is much pain to be endured. Wars. Earthquakes. Famines. Plagues. Persecutions. Betrayals. Bitter family divisions. Martyrdoms.
How are today’s followers of Jesus to face days of great trial and change? Perhaps by considering yesterday’s followers of Jesus.
I think the essence of Jesus’ words to them here is simply this: in the midst of apparent chaos and dramatic and frightening changes, stand firm. Hold your nerve. Beware of easy, but false answers that might divert you. And above all, do not be terrified.
When we panic, we make ourselves vulnerable to those would-be messiahs – snake-oil merchants, who offer us an easy way out, but at the cost of our faithfulness to the true messiah.
Jesus says, ‘Do not go after them.’
When we panic, we lash out and try to impose, or reimpose, our own order on the changing world. But the gospel tells us that all the things we cling to will inevitably crumble to dust anyway – up to and including our own lives.
This was true even for Jesus. Just as the Temple where God dwelt was destroyed, so too, the Temple of his own body where God truly did dwell, was destroyed on the cross.
But by the power of God, out of this death came a new beginning. Isaiah 65 reminds that, even when it seems like heaven and earth are unravelling, God’s promise is that out of the rubble there will be nothing less than the creation of new heavens and a new earth.
There is no going back. The future will look better than the past. It will certainly not look like the past. Death and destruction will open into a new age where sorrow and sadness are banished; an age of peace, where the wolf and the lamb lie down together. A new age that has already been born in the ministry of Jesus.
The good news of the Christian gospel is the freedom from having to control events. We’re even released from the pressure of needing to flourish, or experience great success.
It can be enough simply to hang on. To stand firm. To remain faithful to the one who promises to remain faithful to us. To recognize that even if everything we know and love sinks under the waves of history, it’s not as chaotic or random as if feels; it’s not outside Jesus’ care or his power.
For he foretold it. He remains the Lord of past, present and future. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the rock that will stand firm when nothing else does.
The times we live in and the changes afoot do seem terrifying. But they are not truly terrifying to the person who sees the new, and bigger reality Jesus unveils.
We see this bigger picture as we celebrate the Eucharist together. Of wine – Jesus’ blood that is poured out, but brings life to the world. Of bread – Jesus’ body that is broken, yet is the bread of healing and life.
In the face of change, Jesus says,
Do not be terrified. Do not panic. Do not be anxious even about defending yourself. Even if the worst seems likely to happen, entrust yourself to the Lord of history. Follow him trustingly and obediently. And not even a hair on your head will perish. Not by your cleverness or success, but by your endurance – your faithfulness – you will enter into the resurrection life of Christ.