Sermon on 30th November
Readings: Isa. 64:1-9; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-end
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Mk 13:31)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What do you do when you come to the end of a really good book you’ve been reading?
Do you, like some people I know, go through a period of grieving? You miss the characters or the world that the author has created… or perhaps you enjoyed the style or the tone of the writing, and you worry that nothing else will be as good…
Faced with this dilemma, some people will actually go back and read the same novel again, or they will look for something by the same author. You might even check out what Amazon suggests, with their helpful ‘people who bought this book also bought…’
Do you get inspired to read up on the author whose work you have been enjoying, by reading their biography or autobiography? Or do you research the background against which their story was set, to look for their sources and inspirations, and to check out how accurate their telling of it was…?
Or do you throw yourself into something completely different?
My own solution is to start reading a new novel before I get to the end of the last one. That way I am hardly ever without a story, although my friend who prefers to grieve after she finishes a novel accuses me of being ‘unfaithful’ to the characters in my first novel by investing in a totally different story before I am finished with them.
Today’s readings are all about endings, in one way or another… The gospel we have just heard talks about the angels gathering God’s people ‘from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven’ (Mk 13:27), at the end of time: so it is about spatial as well as temporal end points. And in 1 Corinthians 1, St Paul assures his readers that God will ‘strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 7).
But there is another reason why it is appropriate to talk about the end of a really good book. That is because today marks the beginning of a new year in the Church’s calendar, and in particular in the cycle of readings that are set to be read in Church each Sunday. Last year was Year A, in which we have been following Matthew’s gospel on and off. This year is Year B, which means that we will be hearing a lot from Mark’s gospel between now and this time next year. The year after that is Year C, where Luke will be the focus. But do not be misled… there is no Year D for John’s gospel, because we get bits from John during the Christmas and Easter seasons of every year.
Matthew and Mark tell pretty much the same story as one another, and as Luke. But there are significant differences of character, style, and tone. Mark, for example, does not have any mention of Joseph of Nazareth – who is one of my favourite characters in Matthew. In fact, Mark doesn’t have any nativity stories at all. No angels, no shepherds, and no Magi from the East. On the other hand, Mark has characters like Rufus and Salome, who are not found in any of the other gospels. And Mark shares with Luke the character of Jairus, who is not named in Matthew. There are significant differences in the accounts of the betrayal of Jesus and of his resurrection, as we have heard from time to time fromt this pulpit. But these differences are consistent with the differences to be found in eye-witness accounts of one single event or of oral traditions about one beloved person (see Rowan Williams on the oral culture of the Middle East in his book Meeting God in Mark). And the differences in tone and telling also reveal the different objectives of the various gospel writers: who they were writing for, and why, and when.
Of all the gospels, Mark is the one that is most interested in the end of time. He is like a reader who can hardly wait to reach the end of the book, because they are enjoying it so much. Everything in Mark’s gospel rushes forward towards the moment when Jesus will be revealed as the world’s true saviour and judge. This means that Jesus will show us who we really are by showing us how much we are truly loved (verse 27).
Mark’s Jesus promises to return at the end of time to judge the world, and Mark describes the signs by which we will know that the return of Jesus is near: ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates’ (Mk 13:28-29).
But Mark’s Jesus also points out that the conditions for Christ’s return are almost always present. So we never really know when his judgment will take place. In other words, Christians are to live as if the judgment of God is occuring NOW:
By being ‘alert’ (verse 33) or ‘awake’ (verses 35 and 37), which means paying attention to the signs of the times, including in West Africa and the Middle East; always looking for what God might be doing in our lives and in the world at any given moment.
By doing the ‘work’ that we have each been given to do (verse 34), which means first identifying what it is that God is calling you to do in the world, and then by faithfully carrying it out. This has been the response of aid workers and medical professionals in response to the Ebola crisis. Your work might be a kind word to someone who needs it, or patience with someone who annoys you, or getting creative in the ways you meet and serve your neighbours and loved ones.
By listening very carefully to the ‘words’ of Jesus (verse 31), which will involve us in telling and retelling the stories of God’s love and faithfulness to all people, in ways that are fresh and meaningful for those around us. In this season, it might mean participating in an Advent group, or helping to invite people to our Christmas events, or being a friendly face to welcome those who attend.
The gospel, in other words, emphasises the active participation of Jesus’s followers even as we wait for him (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7).
The letter to the Corinthians, on the other hand, points to God’s faithfulness (1 Cor. 1:9) and God’s active role in ‘strengthening’ us ‘to the end’ (verse 8), ‘so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
Our responsibility is to ‘wait’, but not lazily or passively. Rather we are to be faithful and work conscientiously because our lives have meaning. We are actually at every moment already living in the presence of God. God promises to be faithful to us, by providing for our needs: ‘so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:7).
It may seem that God has ‘hidden his face’ from us, from time to time, as Isaiah says (Isa. 64:7). But ‘from ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him’ (Isa. 64:4).
We may perceive our own lives to be so many stories that come to an end, however slowly or abruptly. But this morning’s readings show us that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches ‘from ages past’ (Isa. 64) to the future ‘day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:8). The gospel of Matthew showed us many things about the urgency of answering the call of God and of living in his kingdom now. Mark’s gospel encourages us to be faithful in the hope of Christ’s coming, when ‘heaven and earth will pass away’ (Mk 13:31). We will come to the end of many books in that time, but we will never reach the end of Christ’s words, which ‘will not pass away’. It is this that gives value and meaning to our choices, to our participation, and to our waiting, which is the theme of Advent.