Sunday, December 06, 2015

Paris - a sermon based on Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25 and Mark 13.1-8

Ahh my much maligned blog. There will now be a flurry of posts, just to catch some ideas and sermons as much as anything else...


I have stood in the crowd at the Bataclan theatre on more than one occasion. I love the bustle of 11e bounded by the Places des Vosges and the the Bastille and Pere Lechaise cemetery at the other. Paris was the backdrop to 2 important years of my life - years of faith, friendships, music, culture and where my vocation was tested. My heart breaks, all of our hearts break, recalling the unspeakable tragedy on those streets in the last 24 hours. They are attacks on music lovers and gig goers like me; culture vultures like me; tourists like me; ordinary people of every walk and way of life like me, like you. And in so many ways there are no words.

And yet into unspeakable tragedy words do eventually come - boiling to the surface of our lives, spat in rage and frustration. But this reaction in the face of grief and injustice is more than a toddler griping that they didn't get their own way. This is a railing from our very core - that signs and symbols of our enduring values and the supposed certainties of life - political freedom, justice, tolerance - have been challenged, levelled, and lives obliterated.

The Temple - the sign of the presence of God in the Israelite community where heaven and earth united - was originally built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant and it was supposed to, like God, endure forever. Yet it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

This enduring symbol was rebuilt during the reign of King Darius by Nehemiah in
516BCE. This 2nd Temple was added to by Herod the Great but the building was decimated in the years after Jesus after a 4 year Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Levelling the Temple, decimated the Israelites’ identity and values, their sure faith and hope in the presence and power of the God who had called them to be His people, lay in piles of crushed rubble. Jesus talking of the levelling of the Temple will have sent his hearers sense of national identity, underlying values and faith in God crashing to the ground.

In Hebrews it says: ‘... And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds...’ This is a passage brimming with a confidence mentioned in vs 19 - confidence that consciences are cleansed, confident of the forgiveness of God and wanting to encourage one another therefore to love and good works. Confidence is frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness,
and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

Did you watch this series of The Apprentice? It’s been a big earner for the BBC. I wonder what do we love about this show - is it Is it the wonderful opportunity that is on offer? Could it be the Lord Sugar put-downs? The mind-bending tasks perhaps? How about the
boardroom battles ending in the pointy finger and those immortal words “you’re fired.” No, what we like is listening to the absolute ego driven, self-aggrandising statement these people come up with. “I am the Swiss army knife of business skills” or I’m the Godfather of the business and I’m going to make Lord Sugar an offer he cannot refuse” oh dear. Oh and please remember these ‘business people’ made £1.87 in profit in the first show. Business people? Nah!

The ego is an amazing thing; it tricks us into believing so much about ourselves to the point where we only hear our own voice. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us we need confidence not based on who we are or our perceived abilities but whose we are, namely God’s.

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ We all do love the bigger, the better, the faster, the bolder. We are all attracted to splendour, grandeur and the external look. That which is true for films - the bigger the budget the better - can be true of our churches in terms of Sunday attendance, the number of home groups and so on. What large stones, yes, but what’s the story behind them?

I watched 'Imagine', the arts programme recently, on which there was a retrospective of the artist Anthony Gormley. It was intensely moving. Raised a Roman Catholic but now staunchly atheistic, Gormley’s work, so often based around the human form. It became clear over the documentary, that whether creating ‘little Gorms’ our of Indian clay six inches high, or the Angel of the North with a wing span of a jumbo - Gormley was interested in exploring not our outer form as people - but what goes on inside of us when we close our eyes. His works ask us not to look at them - as spellbinding and untraditionally beautiful as many of them are, but to look into ourselves - to our inner,
eternal world of drives and motives. Jesus is not focussed external values of numbers or size, or even the endurance of a culture and it’s systems, but eternal values of faithfulness and trust.

What is Jesus asking of us? In these days of violence, when our confidence, culture and values are all violently challenged and in Paris have come crashing down, it would be all to easy to answer it with more violence. Instead perhaps, we should answer it with love. Not just love for the victims who died in Paris or continue to die in Syria or the Lebanon; but more challengingly with love even for our enemies, for those who perpetrated the atrocities.
That does not mean that we must ‘grin and bear it’; no, love requires that we must sometimes do hard things to reject sin and evil. But our love must strive to heal differences, to address the pain of historical events that continues to divide us. And, we must learn to live side by side in love, despite our fears, accepting each other as we are.

We must do this, not because we are forced to do so by our rulers, rather because we believe God loves us: from a heart that freely and willingly chooses to love, to accept, to nurture and to care, knowing that others may not be able to respond in a like fashion.

As Dag Hammerskjöld, the United Nations Secretary General, who died in an unexplained plane crash in Zambia in 1961, wrote, ‘It is only when I can give without expecting a response that the other can receive and be grateful’. Our love must be open to all, given without the price ticket of reciprocal love. And that means that we leave ourselves open to the possibility, even the probability or the certainty, of pain and loss. If that seems a price too great to pay, we must remember that it was exactly that price which was paid by Jesus to redeem us from our sins.

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