Sermon – preached on 15 Nov 2009

Here is this morning’s sermon:

It is quite difficult to get our minds inside the kind of readings that we get at this time of the year in church. We tend to get readings (and this will go on for a week or two) which emphasis quite tricky topics. In particular, we get lots of readings about the end of the world.

I think this is difficult for most of us to make much of because we don’t live in a culture where there is much expectation of the end of the world. Yet such cultures do exist. I preached a couple of weeks ago about being caught in a whirlwind of a sandstorm once in the Middle East. Once I’d got over the surprise of being caught in such storm, I had to come to terms with the fact that very many of the local people had believed that its severity had heralded the end of the world. Both Christians and Muslims were asking whether it was indeed the latter day. Indeed, in one instance I was aware of them discussing the question together – Muslims and Christians asking one another, what does your Holy Book say? Is this it? Is this the start of the end of all things?

The truth is, here in this part of the world, we don’t live within that kind of culture and I think we need to think hard about what to make of this kind of thing.

The bible takes the end times very seriously. Indeed, in bible study there is a name for all this – these texts are referred to as eschatological texts. Eschatology just means talking about the last things.

In various places and at various times in world history there has been a lot of talk about it. It was like a whole science. How do you work out when the last times are at hand? How do you work out when the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Now this week, I have a particular problem preaching about the kingdom of heaven in this part of this city. How do you preach about the kingdom of heaven being just around the corner to a West End congregation in the week that Waitrose has just opened in Byers Road? People in G12 think that the kingdom of heaven has just arrived.

However, we must do a little bit more than that with this text. For, after all, Jesus says to us in the gospel today that we are not to put our trust in large stones and great buildings. It is tempting to look around at the building around us with suspicion when we hear him saying that. But the Lord of heaven is not speaking just about the difficulties of maintaining Victorian gothic piles like this one. He’s not prophesying another phase of restoration for us. He is telling us not to put our trust in things that seem all too secure.

I think that probably makes sense to us this year in a way that it might not have done much recently. Put not your trust in big buildings. Not in banks certainly, we have discovered that. Not in supermarkets either, I’ll be bound, even if they do tempt us with their ready boiled eggs.

These things cannot be relied upon to provide our certainties in life. Many of us probably were lulled into thinking that late western capitalism was going to look after us all for as long as we could imagine. Yet all of a sudden, the great financial institutions, the great, complex financial instruments which seemed as secure and sure as large buildings seem rather fragile and flimsy things to build a life on.

I want to try to find a way to use the language of Last Things – these eschatological texts which we read in church to try to suggest a response which might make the world feel a little safer and to find things on which to build.

I want you to think about what the great collective fears have been in your life, because I think that is what this talk is really all about.

When I think about my life, I can think of three obvious collective fears – nuclear war was the collective fear that I grew up with. Somehow that lessened at just the time a collective fear of global terrorism arose. That is still with us, along with a new collective anxiety about what we are doing to the environment.

I don’t remember it, but I suspect that war in Europe was at one time the most powerful collective fear.

There will be wars, and rumours of wars, says Jesus – knowing our collective fears. Knowing our collective anxieties.

Well, I think this eschatological language is useful and worthwhile because it teaches us to listen to those fears and not just dismiss them. It teaches us that we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. We can’t just presume that we will be OK because we have the money or security to survive.

Those collective end-times fears teach us that we live in a world which needs changing. They should inspire us to recognise that individualism will not get us all the way to heaven. It won’t even protect us from our local fears, never mind our big collective symbolic ones.

So, the fear of nuclear devastation becomes a conviction that either we or those who represent us need to work for a world where such a thing becomes unthinkable.

The fear of war needs to become a conviction that no society is complete whilst another society knows no security and peace in its streets.

The fear of ecological disaster becomes not only the prayer for a better future but the impulse that prompts us to turn off the unnecessary light and to band together to make the big political decisions which will make the world worth living in.

It is that sense of turning our fears into prayers and turning our prayers into actions and those actions turning the insecure fragile world in which we live into a world worth living in for everyone which makes me think that we should not just dismiss the end times thinking as having nothing to do with us.

There will be more of this over the next few weeks. Let us just now acknowledge that Jesus is telling us something important that we should not miss. Let us think on our fears and turn them into active prayer. And so doing, let us make of our troubled world, the kingdom of heaven – a world worth living in.


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