Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembering and the Kingdom of God

Address given at Templederry on Sunday 13th November 2016, the 2nd before Advent and Remembrance Sunday.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Today I wear a white poppy in my father’s memory.
He was dragged unwillingly into the maelstrom of the 2nd World War. As a Chaplain to the Forces he landed in Normandy on D-day, he was there at the crossing of the Rhine, and he ended up in the ruins of Berlin. He spoke little about his experiences, not to me nor to most others I think - but they marked him. He felt it right to wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day, in memory of his comrades who died, and in memory of the scenes of murderous destruction he had witnessed. I thank God that my life has not been scarred by war in the same way his was.

Many people choose to wear a red poppy today, but not all do. We should be mindful of the sensitivities of others, particularly here in Ireland. I choose to wear a white poppy, as a personal commitment to peace and to challenge any attempt to celebrate war.

It is surely right to remember our family and friends who have suffered in war – for they are part of us. It is right to remember the horrors of war – lest by forgetting we allow them to happen again. But how we remember is important, I think.

Jesus proclaims, ‘the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). War is the very opposite of the kingdom of God. Our remembering should be mingled in equal measure with repentance. We need to repent the very human tendency - which we all share - to hate those not of our tribe, to treat them as enemies, who all too often we seek to kill and maim in war. And we should not let others manipulate our remembering to reinforce the tribal instincts that promote war.

Let us join together in faith and penitence in a moment of silence, in remembrance of all those who have died, been maimed or suffered in war; men, women and children; whether military or civilian; on whichever side, and on no side.


Ever-living God, we remember those whom you have gathered from the storm of war into the peace of your presence; may that same peace calm our fears, bring justice to all peoples and establish harmony among the nations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What a beautiful vision of the kingdom of God Isaiah (65:17-25) paints in today’s OT reading!
The Lord is ‘about to create new heavens and a new earth’, says Isaiah. ‘No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.’ It will be a place of peace, in which, ‘the wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox’. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord’.

For the Jews of Jesus’s time, the holy mountain was Mount Zion, one of the hills on which Jerusalem is built, with the Temple at its summit. Herod the Great had extended, adorned and beautified the Temple in the years before Jesus was born. Judging by the remains excavated by archaeologists and descriptions from the time, it must have been a stunning building.

I imagine that visitors must have seen the Temple as like a foretaste of Isaiah’s new creation, a model of what the kingdom of God would be like when it was realised on earth, a monument to peace and plenty for all.

But Jesus did not see the Temple in this way, as the NT reading (Luke 21:5-19) tells us.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God that he cares so passionately about – his kingdom – is not built of stones, no matter how magnificent. His kingdom is not of this world, as he later tells Pilate at his trial. He recognises that the Temple with all its sacrifices and taxes is an unsustainable burden on God’s people, and he knows all material things turn to dust in the end. So, when he hears some people admire the Temple, ‘how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God’, he publicly foresees its utter destruction. And of course, he is proved right – some 40 years later it is indeed destroyed in the course of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule.

Some who heard Jesus miss his point completely. They ask him to tell them how to know exactly when this will happen. Many people in Jesus’s time were just as consumed with apocalyptic fears about the end-times as some folk are today. But Jesus does not feed such fears. Instead he warns them not to believe people who claim to be able to forecast such things. And he tells them not to fear that the end is imminent, even when they hear of awful events, such as ‘wars and insurrections’, ‘earthquakes’, ‘famines and plagues’.

Then with amazing frankness, Jesus uses the occasion to teach his disciples what is in store for them. Jesus knows that the political and religious authorities are determined to put him out of the way and the end game is upon him – in just a few days he will be seized, tried and executed on the cross. And then the authorities will turn on his disciples. ‘Before all this occurs’, he says, ‘they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name’.

But Jesus promises to help them to hold on to and testify to the values of the kingdom of God which he has taught them – that is what matters, whatever may befall them. ‘For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict’, he says. ‘You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls’.

Many people today fear for the future, just as they did in Jesus’s time.
·         They fear Brexit. They fear the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. They fear the consequences of changing climate. They fear their children will be poorer and less healthy than they have been. But disciples of Jesus in every age – including ours - should not be terrified. The apocalypse we dread is not imminent. Jesus reassures us.
·         However, like Jesus’s disciples of old, we must accept that our road will not be easy and there will be trials ahead. But Jesus promises to help us proclaim the values of the kingdom of God. If we stand by the kingdom of God here in Ireland today, we’re not likely to be killed for it, though we may well suffer in other ways. But to proclaim the kingdom is our duty as disciples.
·         Desertion in the face of the enemy is shameful. By our endurance we will gain our souls, as Jesus tells us.

To suffer or die for the kingdom of God is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

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