The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19
Just a few days ago twenty-one of us from the cathedral community were sat, in the heat, on the steps in front of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Those were the very steps that Jesus and his disciples had to walk up in order to get into that place of worship at the heart of the nation, the steps Jesus would have climbed after his triumphal entry and before his provocative act of cleansing the temple. It was a profound moment for all of us. But the pilgrimage, which we’d called ‘Going Deeper in the Holy Land’ was full of deeply profound moments.
The whole intention was to enable pilgrims, who were returning to the land where our faith began, to see more and see different, to avoid the crowds arriving at the top ten sites and to find a bit of reflective space on a road less well travelled. And in the main we did that. On the final day around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was the main focus of so much of Jesus’ ministry, we kept passing packed coach parks and then found ourselves alone in one place after another. It was wonderful.
One of the places that we went to, which no one in the group had been to before, was in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. This was an area which has been almost completely rebuilt after the Six Day War, including the Hurva Synagogue which only reopened nine years ago after being destroyed in the fighting in 1948 when the British Mandate came to an end.
But in that process of rebuilding this Quarter a great deal was found of what was there before, including a place called ‘The Burnt House’. This is the remains of the home of a priestly family, the Kathros family, who lived in quite a grand style opposite the Temple. Their home was destroyed in the fire that engulfed the city following the Jewish Revolt and the subsequent suppression of the zealots by the Romans in AD 70. The houses were destroyed but so was the Temple.
‘As for these things that you see,’ says Jesus some forty years before these devastating events, ‘the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When the early Christians reminded each other of what Jesus had said, they must have reflected on what’d happened. Yet, like us, they still waited for the coming of the kingdom.
We’re living through terrible times, so much of the news that we hear sounds exactly like what Jesus is predicting in the Gospel for today.
‘‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.’
Then he says to them and says to us ‘the end will not follow immediately.’
There have always been people willing to stand on a box at Speakers’ Corner or walk along Oxford Street proclaiming ‘The end is nigh’. Like Senna the Soothsayer in Frankie Howard’s ‘Up Pompeii’ constantly crying ‘Woe, woe and thrice woe’, they are quite rightly ignored. But what we can’t ignore in all of this is the call that the gospel makes to us, and that the church subsequently makes to us, to see the kingdom come on earth as it is heaven, to realise that the kingdom is all around us, to begin living as citizens of the kingdom now, not waiting for some massive, catastrophic event which will bring the whole thing crashing down around our ears like the Kathros family did in the Burnt House.
Paul exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica to look at how they’re living and he says something which resonates so strongly with me
‘Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.’
That has to be the kingdom call to us today, in this place, in this city, in this nation, in this world, at this time, at such a time as this – ‘do not be weary in doing what is right.’
Doing the right thing needs to be the litmus test we apply to all that’s being said to us as we head through these agonising days that lie ahead of us as we approach the 12 December and the General Election.
I think that I’ll go mad if I hear another spending pledge from any of the parties. I feel at the moment as if I am being bribed – free broadband, millions of trees, lots more doctors, infrastructure projects, no more flooding – 20 billion, a trillion, the figures are wild and the promises seem to be desperate and uncontrolled. And then the phrase ‘Get Brexit done’ is dangled before me, like a carrot before a donkey, without any recognition that what we might see in January is just the beginning of Brexit and in no way the end.
But we’re told, ‘do not be weary in doing what is right’, which brings an ethical perspective to what it is that you decide.
We got a taxi from Heathrow back to the Deanery after we’d returned from the pilgrimage. So we were treated, courtesy of the driver, to a dose of LBC on the journey. The phone-in that we were subjected to was all about Jeremy Corbyn’s comments in relation to the recent killing by US troops of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Comments had been made about the need to bring people to trial for their crimes and that was then being caricatured as Corbyn defending terrorist acts. I have to say that what shocked me was not so much the news that Baghdadi had been killed – I realise that arresting someone wearing a suicide vest is almost impossible, I’m not stupid or naïve – but what shocked me was the tone of the comments then made by the President of the United States about Baghdadi ‘whimpering and crying and screaming all the way’ to his death.
What he was talking about was the death of a terrorist, a mass murderer but also a human being however much he appeared to lack any sense of humanity. It seemed as though Trump was once more playing to the instincts of the mob and it was those instincts that were being given airtime on the radio. The principals of international law which had been applied to the Nuremberg trials and to subsequent war crimes, were hardly given any credence.
‘Do not be weary in doing what is right.’ Doing the right thing, making informed and selfless decisions, applying the principles of the faith, of justice, mercy and peace, to whatever we’re doing is at the heart of what it means to live out our Christian faith.
Jesus never held back from challenging and subverting the ways of thinking at his time. The crowds gathered around him on the hillside in Galilee, listening to the Beatitudes would’ve wondered what on earth this teacher was on about. What he was on about was pointing them to just what the kingdom of God would look like.
R S Thomas’ words in his poem that I quote so often, the poem simply called ‘The Kingdom’, encapsulate so much of this for me.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only, and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
‘It’s a long way off’ but we mustn’t tire of doing the right thing and the next few weeks will be exhausting for all of us as people try to convince you, convince us to give them our vote. Don’t be distracted. Jesus tells us to ignore the “I am he!” and “The time is near!” that we’ll hear but instead to focus on the kingdom that is already around us and to reveal that in what you do.
My sisters and brothers, we need help, we need strength, we need food and that is why we’re here. This is a kingdom meal, equal shares for all; it may sound political but it isn’t, it’s just the way God works, it’s just the way the kingdom is.