The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s092g08 Advent 1 30/11/2008
'the powers in the heavens will be shaken' Mark 13.25
When one reads these words of cataclysm I begin to wonder if they were spoken in vain. Jesus tells us quite categorically: 'this generation will not pass away until all these things will take place'. Was he wrong? If he was right what relevance do the words have today, here and now, if the things to which Jesus referred have been and gone?
Time and again, in various guises, the church looks to the past as some sort of 'golden age'. Here in Australia we look to the 1950's when Sunday Schools and Youth Groups were flourishing. But now we seem to have fallen into a big hole. Those parishioners who were part of that time, look back with fondness and look at the present with criticism. Things are not like they were in MY day! Some spiritualities look to the 'faith once delivered to the saints' as the unalterable norm from which we deviate at our eternal peril. Others look to a resurgence of evangelical Christianity where the unconverted are challenged with the claims of Christ.
But Jesus words are about the powers in the heavens that will be shaken, and if there is any power in the heavens it is surely the church. There is no protection in the church from the divine shaking. Just because things were doesn't mean that is how they always should be.
I vividly remember when I went on a Yoga retreat some few years ago now. I met a fellow Yoga practitioner. When he found out that I was a priest at a particular parish, he commented, words to the effect: 'Oh, that's where I went to church and Sunday school; that Sunday school teacher, she taught me what hell was like!' The particular Sunday
School teacher was still worshipping there, many years later, running the parish from the background and thinking how she had made that parish into what it was. Of course, everyone else was to blame for the decline! And recalling this, I realized that the parish and I were there to entertain her. There are some powers that resist the Lord's shaking to the end!
In the literary context perhaps Mark thought of these words of Jesus as referring to the coming destruction of the Temple and the setting up of the desolating sacrilege there. Here certainly were some powers in the heavens being shaken, if ever there was one. And Jesus message is that this shaking was in the plan of God. But if this is all it refers to, then it has no message for us, except perhaps that God got his own back on those naughty Jews for having Jesus killed. Again this puts us in a 'safe' place well presumably!
Following these words we go to the plot to have Jesus killed, and here is another power in the heavens being shaken. It is not insignificant that Jesus was killed before the Temple was razed in 70CE. First and foremost Jesus was speaking about himself. He was going to be stripped of his power.
As I listened to the celebrant at worship recently, he recited the words I have so often said myself: 'Renew us by your Holy Spirit, unite us in the body of your Son, and bring us with all your people into the joy of your eternal kingdom ..' These are lovely words, but I suspect that we see them as referring to us coming to receive the Holy Communion with other like-minded individuals. Perhaps the real 'body of your Son' is actually the body of the whole of humanity, and all people are 'your people' (not just Anglicans) and the diminished communion we regard as **normal** witnesses that we haven't got the message. Our diminished communion needs to be shaken. And there is little point in praying to God to do this. The evidence is all around us, in scripture, in the world. What more can God do? In the end it is up to us to get on with it, to accept being shaken, or to bunker down and think that everyone else is to blame for the decline.
While I have been enjoying a couple of weeks break, I have been looking again at the Psalter the hymnbook of the ancient and modern people of God. I have often thought how much they reflect a 'them' and 'us' theology. So I did a brief analysis and I was distressed to realize that in the 150 only 8 have no hint that God should kill the wicked (28.7%), deliver me from my enemy (25.3%), deliver us from the nations enemy (21.3), or generally reward and favour the chosen (19.3). The analysis can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/PsalmsPrecis1.html This is not especially a New Testament thing for the book of Job certainly focuses on the problem that evil befalls the chosen and the righteous, and the book of Jonah that God cares for those other than the elect. But Jesus says that: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5.43-48) One of the things is that in my tradition, during each service we read a portion of the psalms. No other book of the Bible, even individual gospels, gets this sort of emphasis. Clergy saying the morning and evening office used to read through the Psalter every month; now it is every two months, but this is still a very heavy diet on a single book so concentrating on a 'them' and 'us' theology which the efforts of Jesus to demolish led to his death.
If we are to be disciples of the powerless one, then we don't do this by trying to maintain a position of power and influence over others. Each and every time we assume a position of power, superiority, elitism, segregation over others, marginalizing, alienating, isolating others in ghettos, practicing denominationalism, these will be torn down. There is no safe place apart from other people. Or put the other way around, the only safe place is being in communion with all other people.
In the parallel passage to our gospel reading in Matthew and Luke, Jesus describes the coming of the Son of Man like a thief: "But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into." Matthew 24.43 and: "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (Luke 12.39,40). This is also reflected next week in the epistle reading from 2 Peter (3.10). The thief comes to take away **power** and supposed privilege. This is made clear in Matthew 24.49, 50: "If that wicked slave says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know."
As we come towards Christmass, we come to God in the Christ-child, the ultimately powerless and helpless one. This is again another example of the powers of heaven being shaken. The coming of the powerless one will be largely irrelevant while we try to maintain any position of power, superiority, elitism, segregation over others, marginalizing, alienating, isolating others in ghettos, practicing denominationalism. It will be a quaint story from the past and Christianity remain harmless entertainment for children and their grandparents, having no vital message for the world that it has deliberately and largely abandoned.
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