Canon Precentor - Revd Canon Gilly Myers
I often find, when reading the Bible, that little phrases jump out at me as being highly pertinent, whether or not they are in the context of the passage. Here is one that has struck me for today: ‘There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since the nations first came into being.’
Everywhere I turn I find anguish, most especially in the daily news, as our future relationship with the European Union ebbs and flows as surely as the tide in the Thames. Uncertainty, fear, vehement disagreement, anger, despair and anguish are washed up in the bulletins hour by hour and even sometimes minute by minute.
At this time of the church’s year we reflect on the prophecies we have in the Bible of an era we describe as ‘the end times’ – the period of immense turmoil and anguish in the run up to the coming of God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace, when (as the book Revelation describes it) the earth as we know it passes away, and there is a new heaven and a new earth; a place where mourning, crying, death and separation from God are all of the past, and all things will be made new.
In our Gospel reading we hear of some of the features of this era:
- Wars and rumours of wars
- Nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom
- Earthquakes and famines.
Earlier in the passage Jesus points out the huge structures of the Jerusalem Temple. Look at these buildings, he says (they were probably looking just as strong and sturdy as Southwark Cathedral does today), they are all going to be thrown down; not one stone will be left upon another. A few decades later, this is indeed what happened to the Temple.
And as Christians we believe that we are still in this time of turmoil and anguish, as the prophecies unfold: the wars and uprisings continue to drive peoples apart and inflict unspeakable suffering, whilst natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, famines and raging fire deliver loss, injury and death; inflicting pain, tears and mourning all too often.
People are in anguish all over the world, for innumerable reasons. Of course, the concern relating to the outcome of the Brexit process is hard to compare with the trauma of the people in Yemen – and both should be prominent in our conversations and prayers, for we pray for the welfare of all the nations of the world, and our relationship with other nations.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, however, and whether we are remainers or brexiteers, how should we be the Church?
The former Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove has been addressing a similar question to the national churches of England and Scotland, to the Cathedrals, and to readers of the Church Times.
Will there be services to mark Brexit? (He asks.)
It is a good question. We are used to marking other big national events by holding public services. Liturgy is important because, as he puts it:
by doing this in public, high profile ways, we hold up a mirror to our common life and understand the place we occupy within the larger story of our peoples. And… we offer our story to God…
At every threshold… we need to pause to look back as well as to look forward, try to discern where God is in the events we are passing through, ask ourselves what [God] is calling us to in the future and, above all, offer our lives afresh to [God] in faith and hope.
In cathedrals, where we always hold several services every day, we are certainly going to have to think about how we fashion our public prayers on 29 March next year – but I hope that we are already thinking about this as we pray today – acknowledging the contribution we can make in naming the conflicts and divisions that have arisen from this - oh so difficult - process, and ritualising this painful collective journey in ways that signal what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls ‘good disagreement’.
That is such an excellent paradox: a good disagreement.
As an aside, Michael Sadgrove, whose question to the Churches I mentioned just now, goes on to observe that ‘March 2019 will see us journeying towards Passiontide and Easter. He observes that the gospel of death and resurrection will furnish us with all the spiritual resources we need as we ask how best to mark our departure from the European Union’. You may not yet be aware that this very same former Dean of Durham is to be the Holy Week Speaker at Southwark Cathedral next year. I, for one, am keenly waiting to hear from him in person from this very pulpit.
Archbishop Justin, to whose phrase ‘good disagreement’ Michael Sadgrove just referred, has issued a message this week, after a meeting with Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Council Chair of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). In it he says:
Today, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Germany and I called for our churches to work for unity and understanding in Europe.
Some politicians and political forces are trying to drive a wedge between people. We are seeing the rise of populism and the emergence of extremist political parties.
That is why it's essential that our churches continue to strive for reconciliation.
If political and economic relationships are strained, Christians must build bridges between nations and cultures for the good of humanity, in the service of Jesus Christ.
Our Bible readings today and throughout these Sundays before Advent speak of themes concerning the end times of turmoil and anguish, and the hope beyond them of the new heaven and new earth. These descriptive prophecies are not retrospective – they are describing the time now, as well as the past. As Christians, we acknowledge the signs of the times, and engage with the world in which we live.
The writer of the Hebrews also does what Archbishop Justin has done, in pointing out to us a way forward as the Church. The author of Hebrews urges us to hold on to the basic features of our faith:
- Have confidence in our access to God through Jesus Christ.
- Approach God with a true heart and in full assurance of faith.
- Cleanse our hearts, consciences and bodies from evil – by God’s sprinkling and washing us clean.
- Hold fast to the hope that we have.
- Make sure that we meet together.
- Provoke one another to love and good deeds.
- And encourage one another.
When all seems out of control; out of our hands; and we are full of anguish – hold on to all of these things, that we may flourish in our faith, and play our part God’s work of reconciliation, ‘build[ing] bridges between nations and cultures for the good of humanity, in the service of Jesus Christ.’
And let’s hold in our hearts the hope of reaching a ‘good disagreement.’
It’s not going to be easy – but by God’s grace, we will be shown the way.