April 17th 2019, a Sermon for Holy Wednesday

“The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21.20-38)

Jesus said, ’When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

“The kingdom of God is near”

When have we heard Jesus speak those words before? From the outset, the Good News that Jesus proclaims is clear: it is that “the kingdom of God is near”. He is not, first and foremost, offering them life after death (that is only the ultimate implication of what he is offering). He is offering them an alternative world – an alternative king, an alternative rule; an alternative future, dependent on choosing an alternative present. I realise straight away that saying the kingdom is dependent on our choice, appears to contradict the theme of unconditional love we have explored so far. The kingdom is God’s gift – unearned and undeserved – but God honours us with freewill, so we are still left with a choice to make: to which world do we wish to belong? What kind of future do we wish to embrace? Whose rule do we wish to obey?

Let’s dispose first of the delusion that we can be masters of our own destiny. The myth that we can rule over ourselves was blown as long ago as Adam and Eve, yet it is still the most popular delusion today – the idea that we don’t need to bow the knee to anyone, that we are free and therefore not to be ruled over at all.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with…the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

A trap indeed! The kind of freedom we crave is a trap. The idea that we can do what we like with no accountability simply isolates us from our neighbours and even from the consequences of our own actions. If our own actions have no consequences, then ironically we matter less, not more. A life without responsibility leaves us weighed down with the worries of this life – feeling that we have no control over anything, and with a lingering doubt about whether our choices and actions have any real meaning.

But it is also a delusion, because we are never in control of our own lives. We are simply at the mercy of forces beyond our control. First, there are the forces of consumerism. If we think we find freedom in being financially self-sufficient, we are actually at the mercy of those who supply the things we buy. And there is no mercy or kindness or humanity to be found there – simply the relentless grasping for our money. Money is a dehumanising ruler.

And secondly there is no escape from the politics of the world. We might moan about Parliament, but at least we have the opportunity to resolve differences by talking – “to jaw, jaw is better than to war, war”. But without Parliamentary democracy, it would be the survival of the fittest – the rule of the strongest man.

“L’homme armé doibt on doubter.” proclaimed the most popular song of medieval times: “The armed man should be feared. Everywhere it has been proclaimed…that the armed man should be obeyed.” It is a window into a world where any man with a sword could rule it over everyone else.

This is the sort of rule Jesus was warning us against. It was a live issue in his day. Messiah after Messiah had tried to seize power by arms only to come up against a more powerful foe and bring disaster upon his followers. And now, under the Herodian dynasty, the Temple authorities were secretly planning a new armed revolt, that would prove the most disastrous yet.

That approach to Messiahship, to salvation, is what Jesus was warning against.

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.”

And his warning proved tragically accurate. On the 8th day of the Jewish month of Ab, in late July 70 AD, the Emperor Titus finally lost patience with his restless Jewish subjects. He besieged Jerusalem with four legions, 60,000 armed men. It was, within a day, the very anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians 500 years before . By the time it surrendered, the city was hell on earth. And that was just the beginning of its suffering. Every stone of the city was raised to the ground. Every tree and every living thing was cut to its roots and burned, and the whole wreck abandoned to its fate. Jerusalem would not rise again as a Jewish city until 1948- and arguably not even then. That is where the rule of this world leads, the rule of the armed man.

Jerusalem’s story is not unique. It is the story of Dresden, of Beruit, of Aleppo, of me and of you. It is the story of every human dream of greatness, of all arrogance, of all attempts to seize power and to rule for ourselves. We think it is freedom, but it is a trap.

Why, when the same play has been acted out again and again, do we still not see how it will end? “Why,” asks Jesus “when you can read the seasons of the farming year and know when the fig tree is ready for harvest, can you not read the sign of the times and see when God is ready for his harvest?”

There is a striking parallel in Jesus’ teaching here. These same things are signs that Jerusalem’s desolation has come near AND that the kingdom of God has come near. The two events are linked: the triumph of Christ crucified and the final implosion of the power systems that rule this world.

They say that the sufferings of this world are a sign that there cannot be a God of love. But for Jesus, they are a sign that humanity is incapable of love. We can only rediscover love by experiencing a love unknown – the love of God, which is found at the point where were are at our least attractive, our least lovable, when all other comforts flee. It is a love to be found in the ubiquitous experience of human suffering. The kingdom of God is near indeed. Our king is present at the very point where our desolation is near, refusing to leave us, sharing our fate, carrying his Cross and offering us an alternative future, dependent on us choosing an alternative present.

The sufferings of this life are a sign that the kingdom of this world is dying by its own hand, in a passion for violence and that the kingdom of God is being born in the passion of Christ. They are a sign that it is time for us to make our choice: to whose rule will we be subject? The world of violence that is passing away, or the Prince of Peace, whose rule will endure eternally?

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away…So, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”