2 before Advent - Keep doing good

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard at St George's Campden Hill on 17 November 2013

Throughout the centuries there have been numerous end of world prophecies.  A couple of years ago, Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints predicted that the world would end by 23 December 2012. When the end failed to occur, he blamed it on his followers' "lack of faith", and moved the prediction to December 31. The next prediction is from Norse mythology – 22  Feb 2014. I remember Millennium fever broke out, people stocking up on canned food, water, and, in America, guns to protect themselves and their supplies. The turn of the millennium happened and… well, apart from some huge parties, the world continued undisturbed by the random turn of our human made calculations about time.

Prophesies about the end of the world are scary. Even the most rational of us gets a bit twitchy. While we may look with bemusement on such apocalyptic groups, the fact is, of course, that one day the world will end. One day planet earth will no longer be able to sustain life because the sun will have run out of sufficient energy to maintain it, and then the world will freeze solid. I do hope I experience the joys of getting my freedom pass before all this happens. Perhaps the mistake we make is thinking that the end of the world is a one and only event. The truth is that all the time life as we know it ends and a new creation begins. After dinosaurs were killed by a massive dustbowl, the mammals survived.  The Noah’s ark story tells of a new creation after a great flood. And in the NT Christ brings an end to the old order and a new one came into being. In smaller ways, we experience the rhythm of the year – the season of autumn followed by the stark barrenness of winter and then new life in spring.

This is what the story of the destruction of the temple in today’s gospel signifies. To the Jews the temple was home. Herod began building his temple a few years before Jesus's birth, creating a fantastic edifice that was still being added to when Jesus was there. The Temple was the framework and support of life as they knew it. Without the temple a Jew felt as close to death as being cast into the ocean without a lifebelt. So, no wonder they equated talk of destruction of the temple with something as catastrophic as the end of the world.

And, when disaster threatens it’s easy for us to get caught up in the horror of the situation like when will it happen, whose fault will it be, and what can we do to save ourselves? But this is to get caught up in hysterical talk and the result is either panic or paralysis.

Although Jesus spoke before the fall of Jerusalem and its destruction in AD 70, Luke wrote about 20 years later, and so his readers would have heard Jesus’ words in the light of those terrible events, when something built to be impregnable lay in ruins, and the city at the heart of their relationship with God was razed to the ground. Today, you can still see the huge boulders by the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

For the early church, faced with such faith-shattering events, being reminded that Jesus had looked ahead would have helped people keep faith through the confusion. These words would have been astonishing and bewildering at the time, but they were, with hindsight, words that offered hope, comfort, to sustain the faithful in times of trial.

But the early church was also confused about some of the apocalyptic, end of world, language that Jesus uses. The Thessalonians were expecting the second coming of Christ. In Paul's first letter to them, they understood him to say that the end of all things was imminent. Christ could come back at any moment, so be ready. As a consequence of this expectation, some people threw in the towel, some quit their jobs, and led undisciplined lives. It’s impossible to live in a constant state of alertness for more than a short period of time. A week goes by, then a month, the seasons change, the years roll by. What was going on? Was Jesus mistaken? Did we misunderstand what Jesus was saying?
Paul corrected this misunderstanding in a second letter to them. "No," he said, "don't give up; live life for the long haul. Don't grow tired of doing good." "Doing good" was part of the paradosis or traditions that Paul passed on to all the churches he visited.

In the epistle this week he even uses himself as an example: "When we were with you, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling. We didn't want to burden anyone. So follow our example, don't get discouraged, and keep doing good."

What we are being asked to do is to be doggedly level-headed, to keep our minds focussed on the task in front of us – the task of following the example of Christ. Despite his crucifixion looming in front of him Jesus carried on exactly as before – preaching, teaching, healing and urging people on towards God’s kingdom. (The Zen Buddhists put it another way – but it is not so different. For all the excitement of seeking enlightenment – the water still needs to be carried and the wood for the fire fetched.)

Christians are actually told how to do this at baptism. At baptism we’re asked ‘do you turn away from evil and sin?’ and then, facing the lit Easter candle, we are asked ‘do you turn to Christ?’ The choice is between fixating ourselves on the dark, putting all our energies into serving our own egos, living a life turned inwards; or looking to the light. The light doesn’t make the dark go away but it does show us that there is a way through. Seeing things differently, we behave differently and when we behave differently we free ourselves from the grip of evil and get one step nearer to the Kingdom of God. Of course, this is a life-long vocation – we don’t at baptism suddenly become pure light and goodness. We often struggle with the darkness within ourselves.

Today we also hear Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians, to paraphrase Paul's admonition to never tire of doing good:

"Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak. Comfort the afflicted. Be patient with all but make no peace with oppression. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always."
Holland Park Benefice