“War is the science of destruction”.
So said John Abbott, former Canadian Prime Minister.
And it’s destruction that Jesus speaks about at the start of our Gospel reading today.
Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple - the magnificent, imposing and beautiful structure, the maintenance of which we know was contributed to by the wealthy and poor alike as this reading comes immediately after the story of the Widow’s mite.
The Temple was a hugely important building and its destruction would have been one of the events his disciples would have associated with the end of times.
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke places Jesus in the Temple itself and by the time he writes his gospel, the Temple has indeed been been destroyed as Jesus prophesied. But at the time Jesus’ prophesy its destruction may have been unthinkable to Jesus’ audience.
Jesus knew that one day that Temple would fall, albeit he didn’t tell the people when that day would be. For the people it would be like everything they had ever worked for would be gone. All would be thrown down. Foundations would crumble.
Imagine something so central to your society, so central to your daily existence…..gone.
8 months ago, as the bombs rained down, the people of Kherson in Ukraine would begin to understand what that must have felt like. Not the end of the world, but certainly the end of their world as they knew it.
In Luke’s account Jesus goes on to warn his followers about signs of the end times; famines, earthquakes, plagues, signs and dreadful portents from heaven. Over two thousand years later you might think Jesus had been reading or watching the news of today. Some commentators suggest that rather than being literal in his descriptions Jesus was simply indicating that the end times will be pretty obvious when they come.
Wars and insurrections however, are not, Jesus says, indicators of the end being imminent. Rather it seems they are something humankind must inevitably endure. This year, as we remember all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting for their countries, that is a reality that those of us not old enough to have remembered World Wars I and II are beginning to grapple with. Now, as the effects of the war in Ukraine are felt across the globe we’re more aware than ever of a world that is unsafe and mercurial for many of its people.
This time last year, as we began to emerge from the pandemic, few of us could have contemplated that by Armistice Day 2022 we would be in the midst of the most significant and dangerous conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
I can’t help but wonder how different this sermon might be had Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not occurred.
In our gospel reading Jesus also warns his followers that they must be prepared to face persecution for their faith and to experience betrayal by family and close friends. Persecution and trial it seems will be an inevitable part of their discipleship. Jesus tells them they will be hated but by their endurance they “will gain their souls”. Those who endure faithfully will gain eternal life.
Yet even such trials are to provide an opportunity for them to bear witness and they’re not to worry and about finding the right words for He will help them “with words and a wisdom that their opponents won’t be able to withstand or contradict”. Whilst warning his disciples of the difficult years ahead Jesus is assuring them he’ll be with them to protect them. Reading long after the event we know how powerful their testimonies were and how the early Church thrived despite intense persecution.
Jesus knew that the Temple's destruction would not mean the end of God's creation or salvation. He urged people to bear suffering with hope and patience. His foretelling of the temple’s destruction was a reminder of the transient nature of worldly things, a reminder that all of us suffer, and all of us will go through some form of destruction and tearing down. His words are a reminder that this world and all the stuff that the world offers is fading and temporary, that time and history are in God’s hands and that whilst human history will have an end God, the Alpha and the Omega, will still be there at its end just as He was at its beginning.
The disciples were looking at things through worldly-eyes, fascinated as many of us are, by the big, bold and impressive accomplishments of humankind. But such things lack real permanence and fail impress God.
We don’t have to look far to find evidence of the loss of buildings which took decades or even centuries to build. Our world is in a constant state of flux. Things can change very quickly and unexpectedly. Transition can be painful and our lives can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye. The reading reminds us that the God who in his Son Jesus Christ showed us that death is not the end, remains with us in the change.
Civilisations rise and fall. Only God, and the fallibility of human nature, endure.
As we grapple with the role of the Church in our 21st Century world I was struck by the observation of one commentator that the classic ministrations of the Church have always been associated with changes in our human lives - inevitable changes that most of us go through - birth, illness, marriage, death - and that the Church pronounces blessing and grace during those moments of change, painful or joyous. A purpose of Church, he suggests, is to teach us how to manage such changes gracefully.
What are we to make of this gospel reading as we face our own challenges in 2022?
It seems to me that no matter how depressing the picture may seem the reading is a reminder that we are not to be tempted to despair, even amidst those terrible human conflicts and disasters which precede the end.
History teaches us that even in the face of the most appalling suffering we keep on going. We saw that evidenced after the staggering loss of life in the Great War, after the obscenity of the Holocaust and we see it now in the joyful faces of those recently liberated in the city of Kherson. (I’m going to leave these images of Kherson for you at the back of church - they’re worth reflecting on!)
Kherson, a city in ruins, a city with crumbling foundations, a city left without the basic utilities, but a place where people like Tatiana, who I heard interviewed on the news yesterday say “We don’t have electricity, we don’t have water but we don’t care…..we are happy now”.
Happy because they are free. They have something far more valuable than beautiful buildings and what struck me about Tatiana and others interviewed was their absolute insistence that despite everything, they had never lost hope that they would be free again.
As Christians we find our freedom in Christ. Christ is the secure anchor we can hold on to when life is stormy and it seems like the world is falling apart. We have a choice. We can give into fear or we can trust in God and Jesus Christ, the only hope we have when everything else is torn down.
I end by repeating the words of Martin Luther King Jnr:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
Richard Young (Rector)