Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, 2nd Sunday before Advent 2016

Malachi 4:1-2;
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13;
Luke 21:5-19

It’s unusual for today’s readings to fall on Remembrance Sunday, but due to Advent being early they do this year. And they seem very appropriate. Both Malachi and Luke speak of times of dread and destruction. We remember today the dead of two terrible world wars. I wondered, preparing this sermon, what my predecessors would have preached about, Father Hancock in 1914 and Father Taylor in 1939, as moral darkness and great dread descended on the world. What words of encouragement and challenge would they have found?
We do not live in such dark times as that, though some people in the world do – think of Aleppo and Mosul. But we are living through times of change and turbulence. The free exercise of democracy, both here and in the USA, has thrown up unexpected results and shattered old certainties. New popular movements have given expression to various hopes for a different future – hopes not always compatible with each other. But these movements also give expression to resentment, fear and anger. Feelings that it seems have been building for years, unnoticed by the comfortable and well off. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion”, says the Prophet Amos. It has been a kind of unveiling of what has been going on under the surface of society.
The Greek word for “unveiling” is “apocalypse”. In the Bible, it is used for those passages, such as today’s readings, where we see beyond surface appearances to the hidden forces that are really driving events.
In today’s Gospel reading we are approaching the end of Luke’s Gospel. It is Holy Week, in fact, although the disciples do not know it. In a few short days Jesus will be betrayed and killed, and although Jesus has warned the disciples about this they haven’t understood him.
And as the climactic disaster of the Gospel is approaching, Jesus talks about another disaster, further off, but just as certain – the destruction of Jerusalem. That, too, seems incomprehensible to the disciples as they gaze round with admiration at the Temple and its ornaments. But Jerusalem has always been a city of conflict, fought over from its first beginning to the present day. Ironically, as the name “Jerusalem” means “vision of peace”.
At the time of Jesus Jerusalem was under occupation, ruled from Rome through the Governor Pontius Pilate. It was a city of resentment, fear and anger, heavily suppressed by military might. It was a city where diverse hopes and aspirations for a future free from Rome were talked about in secret. It was a city of underground movements, religious fanatics and terrorists willing to die for their cause.
Jesus saw clearly where all this was heading. People who are deeply attentive to God often do have a clearer view than most of what is going on in the world, and the forces driving society beneath the surface appearance of things. Jesus’s prediction that all this will be destroyed is an apocalypse, that is an unveiling of what is going on. He sees that the cycle of resentment and violence is building and in time will burst out of control, with terrible consequences.
The Jewish historian Josephus described the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, around 40 years after Jesus made his prediction. It matches anything in history for the scenes of horror, grief and ruthless violence. And it was all avoidable, as Jesus had said, if only they had listened to the prophets and known the way of peace.
But, with all that, apocalypse is not of God. These things must take place, says Jesus, but the end is not yet. The unveiling is of the heart of human violence; the destruction is self-inflicted. God does not will these things, but permits human freedom.
What, then, are the disciples to do, in such times as this? Stay faithful, says Jesus. If you are hated and persecuted, see it as an opportunity to testify. That is, carry on with the normal business of the Church, which is to bear witness to Jesus.
You may be betrayed and killed, as Jesus himself is about to be. But – paradoxically – not a hair of your head will perish. If you die with Jesus, bearing witness to the truth, you will rise with him. It is the resurrection that bears witness to God, not the apocalypse of violence. God is the creator and redeemer and will not let his creation perish. In the midst of disaster, even self-inflicted disaster, he is present to redeem, to save, and to create anew.
This is what God is like, and always has been. As Malachi said, around five centuries before the time of Jesus, even in the time of apocalypse, “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings”.
In such times as this, then, what are we to do? It is a moment of apocalypse, in a way: resentment, fear and anger are bubbling up, contrary hopes for the future are being contested. It is an unveiling of what has been going on under the surface. We in the West indeed are a long way from the dark days of the two world wars. But Jesus warns us that currents under the surface of things can lead to calamitous events further down the line, if they are not attended to.
So what are we to do? Stay faithful. Carry on with the normal business of the Church, which is to witness to Jesus. Pay attention to the teachings of the prophets, and above all to Jesus. Live out the values of the Gospel in our lives. Seek to be peace-makers and influences for good in the world. If the times seem harsh, if respect and kindness and love are fading away, then that is a reason to practice them all the more. Renounce violence and revenge. Never give up doing what is right.

And above all never give up on God. “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” Our world needs healing. It needs kindness and love. It needs the good news of God who offers mercy and reconciliation in Jesus. This is the path Jesus has shown to the world. It is made real in the world by those who are willing to pay the price, which may be their lives, as it has been for many in past generations and in parts of the world today. But, Jesus promises, by your endurance you will gain your souls.

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