|4:45pm||Organ Recital: Alexander Pott, UK|
Sermon preached at Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent (3 December 2017) by Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean reminds us of the fragility of human life and the importance of living in the present, saying 'Jesus doesn’t tell us about the future because we have to live in the present moment, which alone is where God is to be found. We don’t find God in our regrets or our fantasies, but only here and now.'
A few weeks ago a friend of mine was at a lunch engagement, just like many he’d been to before. As he was eating his lamb shank he felt a jagged bit of bone hidden in a lump of meat going down his throat and sticking there. Despite coughing and drinking, it wouldn’t go down, so he thought he ought to go to hospital to have it seen to.
A colleague drove him to St Thomas’ casualty unit, and in conversation on the way casually remarked that the same thing had happened to his grandfather. ‘Oh’ said my friend, ‘what happened?’ ‘He died’ came the reply. In the hospital the bone moved a bit, and my friend suddenly started choking, unable to breathe, trying to get air into his lungs, and the doctors couldn’t help him because the bone was too far down his throat – so they sent him in a fast ambulance to Guy’s hospital to a specialist unit to operate on him. As he signed the consent form before the anaesthetic, they said that he might wake up having lost some teeth with a lot of bruising, or if the bone had gone down his airway it might cause bleeding which would fill his lungs with blood, and he would die.
I was reading a magazine interview with a paramedic in New York a while ago. When the reporter asked him what he'd learned about death through his work, he said – I’ve learned two things: how fragile the lives of human beings are; and how hard it is for us to believe it.
When will death come to us? In the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or when we’re asleep? It will come. Just don’t believe it won’t.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is talking to his disciples about the future. We’d all like to know what the future holds for us: which is why fortune tellers do such a good trade, and why people want to know when the end of the world will happen, even though countless people before them have thought they knew and were wrong.
In Jesus’ day people were waiting for God to come, waiting for the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king whom God would use to kick the pagan Romans out of Palestine and give the Jews their own land back and give justice to the poor and downtrodden so that they got the life which they deserved.
When is God going to come in judgement on the bad people, the faithless people, the foreign people, they were asking. And the disciples were asking the same thing, because they saw God at work in Jesus, and assumed that what they expected about God coming to sort the world out in power was going to happen soon.
In chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel Jesus addresses this expectation. He talks about the forthcoming destruction of the wonderful new Jerusalem temple built by Herod, about the persecution of his followers, and about a time of dreadful suffering, which will happen in the lifetime of his disciples, but with yet further sufferings ahead.
It’s a bit like when you’re trekking in the mountains and you see in front of you a range of hills which you have to climb, and behind them you can just see the tops of an even higher range which seem quite close, until you get to the top of the first set of hills and see the distance that lies between.
So most of Mark chapter 13 is about the awful destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, less than 40 years after Jesus was speaking, when messianic nationalists rebelled against the Romans and provoked great slaughter and destruction between themselves, as well as by the Roman conquerors.
However, the passage we’ve just had read to us comes at the end of Mark 13, and it gives us that glimpse of the mountains beyond, that ultimate fulfilment of the coming of the Messiah in judgement which the season of Advent reminds us we still look for.
Jesus refuses to answer the question of when we’ll arrive at that ultimate destination, for two good reasons: – because of our own judgement, and because of our own death.
The issue about judgement comes in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ says the prophet, praying that God will bring judgement to the earth.
We long for justice; but we also have to fear what justice and judgement may mean for us.
Isaiah and other prophets in Israel were very aware that, if we ask for God’s judgement on the injustices and cruelties and sins of others, then we must be ready to face God’s judgement on our own injustices and sins as well. And that judgement, says Jesus, isn’t just in the future. It starts here and now. Our conduct has consequences, and we have to live with them, whether it’s the hard reality of Brexit, or the degradation of the environment, or the hurt we cause to others.
In these days of Twitter and trolling, people are quick to condemn and write words of hatred and judgement upon others. But to those of us who do – stop and look at yourself, before other people do it for you.
On the radio on Friday a police computer expert was explaining how by examining a computer he could tell that its owner, a government minister, had been sending emails, writing documents, answering letters and viewing pornography all at the same time. Very little now is private: and whenever we judge others, do we stop and think how others are seeing our own unkindness and abuse of others, our own weaknesses and sins? Jesus teaches us that those who readily judge others will themselves be readily judged.
And what of our own death? Two months ago my daughter and her family were driving down a motorway when suddenly a lorry on the other side of the road blew out a tyre, crashed through the barrier and smashed into two cars just ahead of my daughter, who managed to stop and help the trapped and injured – the dead were beyond help. In a second, five people were dead and people’s lives forever changed, on an ordinary day, travelling on the motorway.
So it could be for us – when everything seems ordinary, suddenly it can change, and our apparently secure world can end for ever. That’s why we don’t need to know about the end of the world: we need to be ready now, at any moment, to let go of what we think we have, and give an account of our life to God.
Jesus doesn’t tell us about the future because we have to live in the present moment, which alone is where God is to be found. We don’t find God in our regrets or our fantasies, but only here and now.
In Mark chapter 13, Jesus doesn’t speculate or judge others, but turns the question back to us:
Have you been reconciled to God while there is time?
Have you found God’s forgiveness and shared it with others?
Are you awake and living with God in Jesus Christ, whenever death comes to you, or are you sleeping in false security?
My friend survived his encounter with a piece of lamb bone, with all his teeth intact. But it’s made him think about how suddenly life can end, and what he does with it while he can.
How fragile the lives of human beings are; how hard it is for us to believe it.
When will judgement come to us? In the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, during the day or when we’re asleep? Keep awake. For come it will. Just don’t believe it won’t.