Sermon, 5 November 2023, Fourth Sunday before Advent – Rosamond Miskin

War is very much in the news at the moment.  The war in the Middle East and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  You could say that the whole history of mankind has been one of conflict between nations.  It has also been a history of civil war and tribal enmity.

What stands out, in my mind, as a reason for all this conflict is the desire to conquer and occupy land that you believe is rightfully yours.  If you achieve your objective, you then build upon the land structures that affirm this belief and assert your presence.  The story does not end there though as there may be further invasion by an outside party who will destroy what you have built, kill your people and build anew to reflect the new state of affairs.  In his book entitled ‘Modern Theology’ James Mackey writes that ‘no circle is more vicious than the circle of violence, and there is no logic of violence, however plausible it may sound, which is not in fact circular’.

There is much sorrow in this process.  The loss of loved ones, the trauma of survivors of all ages, and the destruction of beautiful buildings containing art treasurers of great interest and beauty.  It is a negative process that goes on repeating itself throughout human history.

What, then, may bring this cycle of destruction to an end?  War weariness?  A reduction in the desire to conquer and possess land?  Prayers for peace answered or perhaps new generations putting the sacredness of human life above all other considerations.  Time will tell, but I believe that the New Testament provides us with the ultimate answer.

To find that answer we can turn to today’s Gospel reading from Chapter 24 of Matthew.  Here, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow, not to mention famine, earthquakes and the persecution and killing of his disciples.  There will, he says, be an increase in lawlessness and ‘the love of many will grow cold’ – what a chilling expression that is.  Yet, as Matthew goes on to reassure us, that is not the end of the story.  Jesus then says to his disciples that those who endure to the end will be spared, the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.  From subsequent verses of Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the Son of Man will come on clouds of heaven to gather his elect from the four winds ‘from one end of heaven to another’.

The ultimate answer then lies not on earth but it comes down from heaven.  You might ask why it must be this way.  Why does God, who loves us, not intervene earlier to put an end to war and suffering?  If we look at Psalm 107, God does, according to the Psalmist, answer those who cry to him in distress and deliver them from destruction, but war, and its aftermath of horrors, has continued across the centuries.  In his Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Rowan Williams writes that ‘God does not step down from heaven to solve our problems but is in the heart of the world in our suffering’.  I would also say that God has given us freedom of choice and for many the choice is war and its aftermath. I believe, though, that in verse 13 of today’s Gospel reading, a way forward is offered when Jesus says to his disciples that ‘anyone who endures to the end will be saved’.

Endurance is a word that features often both in the Old Testament and the New.  In Psalm 43, the Psalmist initially mourns the fact that God has ‘cast him off’ and he calls upon God to send out his light and his truth.  Then he corrects himself, calling upon his soul to continue to hope in God who is ‘his help and his God’. In Psalm 107, the Psalmist knows that ‘the steadfast love of God endures forever’. God, then, will not abandon us even if we choose to walk away from him.  Jesus certainly knew that God looked to him to endure.  As he says in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want’. There was also the endurance of the early Christian martyrs.  So when we endure hostility this imitates the enduring love of God and demonstrates our faith in his ultimate loving purpose for us and the promise of his kingdom, even in the darkest hours.

We can also say that although the loss of beautiful buildings is a source of sorrow, we can take comfort in the words of St Paul to the Corinthians.  Our bodies, Paul writes, are God’s Temple in which God’s spirit dwells, and the foundation of the Temple is Jesus Christ.  Christ is our foundation stone and we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

So let us endure what we must endure, keep hope in our hearts and pray for a better world to come.

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