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Sermon preached on the second Sunday before Advent (18 November 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
Hebrews 10: 1-14, 19-25 Mark 13: 1-8
There is a fine line between hope and naivety just as there is a fine line between reality and pessimism. As a result, the strength of our hope needs to be tested by proper engagement in reality so that our yearnings for a better order lead to challenge and action: the triumph of hope over experience.
The famous motto of the BBC reads: ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’. It is peculiar to the BBC although it is clearly inspired by words in the Old Testament Book of Micah and Book of Zechariah which envisage a better order when a Saviour will come and transfigure the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God and of his Christ.
And yet the BBC whose motto imagines that kingdom come is currently reporting devastating retaliatory attacks between Israel and Palestine not far from the very stones which Jesus’s disciples behold when they express their wonder to Jesus: ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’
The wailing associated with that Western Wall which is all that is left of those stones is not the preserve of any one group of people but must be a wailing shared by us all if we are to avoid the danger of naivety and challenge the danger of pessimism.
It is at best bewildering, at worst frightening, if you think about it, that Jesus who is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy that nation shall not lift up sword against nation and that the Messiah will speak peace unto the nations tells his disciples that ‘nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom’. What are we to make of that extraordinary scene in this morning’s gospel lesson? Jesus seems to be saying that all of this is necessary – ‘but the beginning of the birth pangs’ as he puts it.
Does that mean that what is happening in Israel and Palestine right now is somehow inevitable and that we should resign ourselves to it? Or is there something quite profoundly challenging in what Jesus predicts? Not that nation rising against nation is in itself inevitable but that it is the consequence of our failure to recognise that God makes righteousness and praise blossom before all the nations: not only before one nation – and certainly not only before my nation.
The current situation in Gaza, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem is by no means straightforward nor can blame be attributed wholly to one side or the other: nor is it as simple as there merely being two sides.
It is religious and political, historical and contemporary, geographical and financial, opportunistic and strategic – and it is very real.
It is where experience has been allowed to triumph over hope.
When Jesus looks at the Temple and says that not one stone will be left there upon another and that all will be thrown down, he is not making some great dramatic prophecy discerned through some great divine insight. He is merely reflecting upon the nature of human folly. Because any shrewd political observer of the time would have seen the way things were going and said exactly the same thing.
And, indeed, the Temple was destroyed some forty years later in the First Jewish-Roman War: a distant echo perhaps of the mortar attacks of recent days – but by no means unrelated.
This is the season immediately before Advent when we begin to turn our thoughts to the end of time – to our death and to that time when we will stand in the presence of God. We consider particularly themes to do with judgement and therefore to do with sin. And we have, it seems to me, a very narrow view of both of those themes.
There are three sins of which we are, I think, all guilty, which relate to what Jesus is saying in this morning’s gospel lesson and to the situation in Israel and Palestine right now and they stand quite far apart from the traditional vices with which religious people have an unhealthy obsession.
The first is tribalism and our desire to build walls around ourselves to shut out reality and create romantic cocoons which are mean and false. At best, we call it tribalism but, at worst, it is called ethnic cleansing.
The second is arrogance and that extraordinary habit at which religious people excel of making God dependent on us rather than us dependent on God. It is where we judge on God’s behalf and, rather than demonstrating religious zeal, it merely betrays lack of faith.
The third is blame where we fail to understand, on a worryingly regular basis, that we are all jointly responsible for everything that happens in this life. The intricate connectedness of everything makes it impossible ever to attribute fault to one person and to no one else.
Jesus on the cross understood this: which is why he opened wide his arms for us all – when God spoke his last and final word about everything – and took the blame on himself. The cross was the triumph of God over tribalism, arrogance and blame. It is the triumph of hope over experience and we must never forget that, when we hear the mortar attacks or when we sit in our armchairs criticising.
‘Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.’