We live in strange times, we are surrounded by feelings of unrest and disease, times of great changes some of which raise very serious questions as to what the future of this world will look like. Hardly a day goes by when the news is not filled with conflict, protests and deep social changes that affect many. People are losing their homes and people are going hungry, you like me probably have questions, doubts and fears. That said a phrase that comes to mind over and over again is this “There is nothing new under the sun”, perhaps we have been here before!
Just pause with me for a moment, maybe close your eyes and imagine the most magnificent building you have ever seen, it might be a castle or a palace, it might be a huge concert hall, or even a cathedral, it might even be the Temple that Jesus listeners are admiring so eloquently in the Gospel reading that we have just heard.
In your mind’s eye reach out your hand and touch one of the walls in the building, feel the strength of it, then look up, what do you see, a wonderfully painted ceiling? A roof light letting the glory of the skies above shine through? Perhaps it is encrusted with jewels, or help up by strong and sculpture like beams…
I am sure that what you are getting is just a glimpse of the awe that those gathered around Jesus that day had been experiencing, so just think of the shock you might feel when Jesus words break through your awe-filled gazing….
“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
What? How? Surely that’s is impossible…. I am sure all those thoughts flooded through the listener’s minds, until they finally blurted out their response; When?
More shocking still is the fact that we know that when Luke wrote his Gospel about 30 years later that the temple had already been destroyed by order of the Roman occupying forces. Jesus lived in a time of occupation and war, an uncomfortable and difficult time.
That might help us then when we think about why we have come together today, for we have come to remember, to remember those who have lost their lives in times of conflict paying the ultimate price for serving their country. We come to remember those whose stories are rooted in our community here, and those from further afield who served alongside them. We come to remember not because we believe that war itself is a glorious and good thing, but because we cannot forget the sacrifices that have been made by those whose aim was to secure justice and peace.
We come to remember because when we remember we should learn; so, what would those crowded around Jesus have learned through their remembering of his teaching that day? His words were not comforting as we have already noted, but they were spoken in a style; one that his audience would have known was less about facts and more about warnings, a bit like a story that draws you in and makes you think!
He spoke to them about the challenges they would face, about how they might be arrested and questioned, he spoke of war, famine and plagues, this was all to get people to listen to make people think. Those admiring the Temple could not conceive that it would be destroyed, they did not understand the change that was coming. I wonder if it is the same in our day, I wonder what change is coming?
And then he said quite simply “Do not be afraid”; first he had called their attention away from the building, and then he called their attention away from the terrible things that were to come and simply invited them to trust God. Don’t prepare your defences or arguments he said but trust God, trust that you will be given the right words, trust that you will be kept safe, trust that in the end all will be well.
What he was asking of them was not an easy thing, it called them to look up and out, but not at a beautiful building this time, but to God whose plans and purposes for those who dare to seek him out are so much more than we could ever imagine. Our reading from Isaiah spoke of a lion eating straw, and lying down with a lamb instead of eating it, it spoke of a future time of peace when the difficulties of this world had been brought to an end, and creation itself had been restored. It painted for us quite a beautiful but maybe to our minds quite impossible picture, and yet there is, quite a contrast to the picture that Jesus painted for his listeners! Today we are given both pictures to think about.
I think that we need them both to give us hope, for I am sure that none of you would disagree that we live even now in uncomfortable and unsettling times, can we get used to seeing images of refugees fleeing their war-torn homes in search of a better land? Can we close our eyes and ears to the things that are happening here in our own country, a rise in hate crimes and racism, the plight of the poor and the vulnerable? Then of course there is America, and the response to the election result that has given us President-elect Trump. Whatever we think about Brexit or Trump what is most unsettling surely is that our countries are divided, and that cannot be good, but it is like the picture that Jesus has given us, these are difficult times, and yet he exhorts us not to be afraid.
What then do we do with our questions doubts and fears? And how do we live in these days?
First let’s hear Jesus words, do not be terrified, this cannot harm you, maybe it can harm the outer you but not the precious beloved of God you, that you will find deep in your heart and soul if you pause to listen, again that is not easy for there is so much clamouring for our attention. So, if I may I am going to offer you a daily practice of peace that you can remember. Find a quiet place, it might be your bedroom, it might be your living room, it might be outdoors if that helps you, and in that place, take time to be still, become aware of your breathing, hear your breath as you breathe in and out. Let your mind become still (this takes practice), and as you breathe in and out chose a word or phrase that helps you (Jesus, Yahweh, or maybe even deep peace). Allow yourself to settle into a rhythm of breathing and hearing that word, this is called centring prayer.
But why on earth would I offer you a practice of prayer to help a world in turmoil? Here is why; through prayer we connect with our creator, we lay our lives aside and we seek a new way of seeing and being. I believe that often 0ur tendency, especially through the news outlets is very often to focus on the problems first, laying ourselves aside in prayer connects us through God to a new possibility, it helps us to see the world through different eyes.
From that place we can then begin to live, not in our strength but through God’s strength, not in our ways but connected to God’s ways the news might still be bad, our days may be difficult but we will know that God is with us, and that will give us strength to speak the words of peace that are needed so badly, the peace perhaps to stand with somebody who is being tormented for the colour of their skin or the way they dress, strength to speak up for things that are needed in our community, our country or our world, strength not our own but God’s because we have paused for long enough to find our source, our centre in him.
We can do this with confidence because we know that In Jesus he did not hide away from suffering, but held all the worlds suffering and pain in himself as he hung on the cross, giving up his life so that death pain and suffering might be overcome and the world restored into the wonderful peaceable picture that Isaiah offered us. It might be tough, remember the Temple Jesus followers were admiring was destroyed, but we are not alone, it might be challenging but we are not alone, it might even be scary, but we are not alone, bad things may happen but we are not alone. There lies our comfort and our strength, not that we live for ourselves but in God who knows every hair on our head and every beat of our heart.
Let’s dare then to do what others have done before us, dare to lay down our lives not in battle but in faith, trusting the one who holds the beginning and the end, and us safely in his hands.