Sermon 15 November 2015

It is probable that I am the only one present this morning who has heard of Hedeghoppers Anonymous. This was a group who in 1965 made a popular protest song called Good News Week:

‘It’s good news week; someone dropped a bomb somewhere contaminating atmosphere and darkening the sky….’

The song goes on to list all the ways in which the world was being destroyed by war, pollution, greed. It was a protest by the young against the way in which the old had destroyed their future.

The word Gospel, euangellion, the good news, Godspell the good words, God’s Word most surely can applied to the work of St Luke whose words announce the message of salvation to all the world: ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people…’ ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to all who are God’s friends…’

Reading today's Gospel one could be forgiven for feeling that Mark was privy to information that St Luke had missed.

‘Wars, rumours of wars…’ there’s not much talk of peace on earth and goodwill here. ‘Nation will rise against nation, there will be earthquakes and famines…’ glad tidings, great joy and according to Jesus this is just the beginning.

In the lectionaries we have been following Esther and the Maccabees and Daniel and we see that the idea of the holocaust is not just a horror of the 20th century and that conflict over religion in Syria and Palestine is as old as the hills around Jerusalem.

In today’s Gospel we can imagine some of the disciples behaving like excited tourists ‘look at these beautiful buildings, look at this wonderful architecture!’

There is a story in the folklore of CR which I hope is true: Two CR Fathers were on board a ship on their way to South Africa. As they were travelling down the coast of Egypt one of them rushed down to the cabin where his brother was reading – ‘Come up Timothy and look, we are passing the Pyramids!’ The other brother looked up from his book and said quietly ‘I’m saying the midday office.’

Jesus response to the disciples is more dramatic but the message is similar ‘These are the things of time; we are here for the things of eternity’. ‘These stone will have gone before long’. It is in answer to the question ‘when?’ from four of the disciples that Jesus gives the longer answer that scholars have called the Marcan Apocalypse:  "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs".

It is a pretty grim message to men who had hoped to share a kingdom with Jesus. It is a pretty grim message for us who live in the midst of wars and rumours. Is there nothing here to lift the disciples’ hearts? Is there no good news for Christians today?

Well there are two phrases in today’s Gospel which might cause us to think. ‘Do not be alarmed’. I had a friend who went to confession in St George’s, Belfast on one occasion. He knelt at the altar rail facing east while the Rector sat facing west. At one point the Priest interrupted the penitent. ‘Excuse me just one moment’ he said, left his seat and walked to the back of the church. A few minutes later he resumed his seat saying ‘that was a soldier at the door, there is a bomb outside but don’t let that worry you’.

There is going to be war, earthquake and famine but don’t let that worry you. In the words of Corporal Jones ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ Well yes… but Jesus is trying to put things into the context of eternity. These stones won’t last forever, nor will the false teacher nor will the suffering and the pain because we now come to the second phrase that we need to ponder: ‘These are but the birthpangs’.

I had always read this in a negative way; ‘these are just the beginnings of our troubles, wait ‘til you see what’s coming next’ but actually birthpangs is the most positive word in today’s readings. No man is capable of speaking about the actual pains of giving birth but everyone knows the joy that results from it - Oliver Burnham, Isla, Thomas and Edward (if I have left out any small person from the College family please forgive me) are the evidence of that joy in our midst. Jesus may indeed be saying wait until you see what is coming next but he is looking beyond the disasters and he is placing the future in the hands of a loving Creator. That is the theme of the other readings this morning. So Daniel promises the righteous that they will shine like stars forever and ever. Hebrews goes further – it is Christ our Priest and sacrifice who guarantees our place by God’s throne. This is the Temple that will last when all the great and beautiful stones have turned to dust and all human scheming has become fruitless.

Does that speak to the present to the victims of the Paris bombing, to the refugees and those caught in the crossfire of war? Does it help the victims of violence or the child who has been bullied or abused? In the alternative Old Testament reading for today we find Hannah – a victim of bullying and abuse, suffering physical disability. Here we find God intervening, creating real birthpangs and bringing the consequent joy to a sad woman’s life. This is the message of the Incarnation. God loves his creation and he rules it and saves it on the universal and at the personal level. On this Sunday before Christ the King let us accept his rule in our hearts and be of good cheer in the one who overcomes the world.

John Gribben CR