Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 33 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Who can be trusted to lead?
How easily we believe things for which we hope! If someone promises what we strongly hope for, especially if it is not just something we desire but for which we have high hopes and expectations, are we not inclined to believe them? When we believe that such things as they promise must eventually come to pass, and when they present themselves as charismatic personalities, we tend to wish them to succeed. When we believe it is morally justified, we feel it is only right that it should happen, and in the end must happen, and we will look favourably upon promises to make it so.
The common human hopes for and belief in peace, and in justice for all, will excite interest at almost any time, but when there has been oppression, pain and exploitation inflicted by a great power, and the memories of past national glories are constantly being celebrated, it is understandable that a people under the yoke of a foreign power will be aroused by the prospect of a hero leading them to victory over an oppressor. Such was the situation of the Jews at the time when Jesus was teaching in Galilee and when he made his final journey to Jerusalem. There had been rebellions before; and we know historically that there would be more in the future. Some looked to Jesus to restore the ancient kingdom of his ancestor David; so they had called out as he entered the city:
There were others too who excited interest, even at the same time as his trial. Remember the man who the people chose for Pilate to release, when he would have let them have Jesus:
You can catch something of the mood of the time in that passage from the dealings of Pilate with the crowd. There had been an insurrection, we do not which it was, one of many, in which Barabbas had committed murder. Jesus too had been represented to Pilate as a rebel leader, and Pilate not really believing him to be a threat is teasing them calling Jesus repeatedly "the King of the Jews", which is what he made of the idea that Jesus was being described as the Messiah. (The choice made by the crowd is even quite confusing when you see that according one source Barabbas was known as Jesus Barabbas, and the name Barabbas means "son of [the] father", possibly son of a rabbi and a member of the Zealots party, and Jesus of course meant Saviour which is what they might have hoped for in a rebel leader.) There were plenty of claimants to the title of liberator, even of Messiah. We know from history that a great rebellion of the Jews against the Romans began about 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and that the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 as part of the punishment. Jesus was not alone in expecting dramatic things to happen out of the local political situation.
That Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple seems fairly certain. There are numerous relics of what he said about it at various places in the New Testament ( John 2:19; Mark 14:57f; 15:29; Matthew 26:59-61; 27:40 and Acts 6:14) as well as the verses with which today's gospel reading begins:
And they were big, those stones; it is said that many were nearly 40 ft (12 metres) long. Saying that they would be "thrown down" was likely to be remembered. His enemies even accused him of saying that he would destroy the Temple himself. His prophesy, clearly often misunderstood, was part of the prophetic tradition in which others long before him had spoken of the temple's destruction (Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 7:14; 26:6) at another time and in regard to a previous temple. It was part of the prophetic message about the consequences of the people of God being unfaithful to their covenant with God. So it would also have had that meaning in what Jesus said too. In this case it was prophesy also in the simple sense of prediction. (Marks' gospel is generally believed to have been written during the time of the Jewish revolt but before their defeat and the destruction of the Temple. Even if it was after the event, as with Matthew and Luke, there are sufficient independent lines of evidence, including the accusation against him at the trial, to make it highly likely that the writers were not simply interpreting some other more general remarks. Although memory of what he said was confused he was clearly believed by those who were with him at the end to have made the prediction. Nor was there anything very surprising about such an expectation. Others at the time had the same idea according to the Jewish Tulmud.)
There was something quite natural about it, to see that disaster was ahead. It was what a good political analyst of the time could see might well happen when rebellion against a superior and ruthless power is being fomented. To say that is not to say that God was not in it. It is God's creation and his will is being worked out in and through the natural order of things as well as in strange, unusual and unique historical events. Sometimes the same event can be both. Did you notice for example in the Old Testament reading last week in the story of Ruth, how she had a child which fulfilled the purpose of her loyalty to Naomi and the people of Israel:
It was all perfectly natural, just the like way that she and Naomi arranged that Boaz would take notice of her. Such a natural thing as sexual attraction, marriage and the birth of a child, can also be the work of God in a specific historical sense; so that child was the great grandfather of King David and an ancestor of the Messiah born at the same place, Bethlehem, many generations later. We do not need to step out of ordinary human affairs to find the power of God at work.
It might not be very safe, at the time of yet another uprising in that part of the world, and you might not be allowed, on a visit to Jerusalem in the year 2000, to walk from the Temple Mount across the narrow valley and up a higher hill, "the Mount of Olives", and sit where Jesus sat, as a teacher would then and looked back over the city.
It was and is a real life scene and it is no accident that Jesus spoke of those things right there. The Temple is not there now. It was never rebuilt after that final destruction in AD 70, but we know that the mount where it was is still regarded by many different people as a sacred place. It is a suitable symbol for us to think again about war, leadership and human hopes. It was looking at that scene so long ago that Jesus spoke of the end to which all things were moving. Was he talking of the kind of cataclysmic outcome of the struggle between good and evil forces that some see in a great battle at the end of the world, even in that place and some would have it? Or, was he talking in more general terms about leadership and struggle in the conflict between good and evil; or perhaps of struggles between nations and peoples generally. Or did his talk of the end time have nothing to do with politics and power struggles in human history? After all does John not tell us that Jesus told Pilate, in the midst of all that political talk which surrounded his arrest and his death, that the kingdom of which he was the king was "not of this world":
By the time that John's gospel was written, much later than the others, the direct reference to the Temple was less relevant, and the idea of not worshipping on the Temple Mount, or any mountain, would already have taken hold for those who met around the table of the Lord, so they would be about able to apply what Jesus said to the woman at the well in Samaria to themselves:
There are many layers of meaning in such sayings of Jesus. Sometimes they have symbolic value far beyond their immediate application in time and place. We need to keep that in mind, but it is clear that Mark writes of a struggle within this world even if it has other meaning also. In the following verses they are given instructions of a practical kind concerning their safety when things become threatening (Mark 13:14 ....then those in Judea must flee to the mountains). The most direct and helpful interpretation is to see that Jesus, looking at the city and seeing its coming destruction, speaks of the current excitement about rebellions and hopes for leaders who would be liberators, deliverers, saviours, or perhaps the Messiah, in the historical practical and political sense. There may be important things to learn from that for the bigger picture as we may see it, but first see the immediate point of reference in the struggles of the time, in which they had been hoping that Jesus who had shown a propensity to challenge the authorities might lead them to victory. He would in fact lead them to a different kind of victory, but first see how he addressed the situation they were in as they saw it. There were many claiming to be the one who would offer new hope:
If Jesus was talking of the political turmoil in which many were claiming to be messiah-like leaders, what he meant by Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' is that many would claim to be the Messiah; that is to be the Christ, not that they would claim to be Jesus of Nazareth. We commonly understand this to refer far into the future to a time like ours in which many would claim to be Jesus or "Jesus Christ" coming again as he promised; and it could have been understood in that way when his words were remembered later perhaps even in apostolic times. Then, the warning Beware that no one leads you astray, quite properly applied both in the immediate historical circumstances and in a later more general, otherworldly or symbolic sense. But we do not get the full meaning unless we see its immediate application as well as any other. For it is excitement of all sorts of human hopes and the promise of their fulfilment by messiahs and demagogues of one sort or another which has brought countless human tragedies. How far do you need to look to see them! They are still with us, and the history of the last century is soaked with blood because of them and the propensity of people to follow false messiahs.
One further point. "The end" is not simply the point in time when things stop happening. It might have that meaning too, but it here it contains more of the idea of a conclusion in the sense of the goal towards which things are moving, the point at which it can be said that the promises have been fulfilled. "The end" is when things are accomplished or perfected, as when Jesus said on the cross, "It is finished" or "It is accomplished", meaning that he had completed the work he came to do: his sacrifice was now complete, perfect and effective. One time might have come to an end, but new life lay beyond. But let there be no doubt, the end which Jesus spoke of was not only a symbolic conclusion to a dramatic sequence. There would be real death and destruction, for the old order would pass away in pain and suffering. There was reason to fear the end because there was much evil in the world, although they would eventually learn that they need not fear if they trust in him because of the victory that he would win - but that was then beyond them as they looked across the valley to the city and the Temple. There is a warning here about false hopes, about seeking ends which are unworthy, as well as the warning about putting one's trust in false messiahs. It was real in that situation. The warning applies to us as well. How much today is falsely valued? How much do people hope for ends which would in any case only be destructive? In times of political change and crisis we are all too ready to be carried away with hopes and fears which are ill founded, making too much of minor human struggles. We should see any limited human crisis as no more than signs of greater things to come by way of a new age, and a new birth:
The drama of human life is not quite endless, but it is immensely varied and far more wonderful and unpredictable than people imagine; and yet there is the promise of fulfilment in "the end". Who then can be trusted to show us the way to the promised end? Don't sell your precious trust too easily, Beware that no one leads you astray. There is only one Lord, one Messiah, who is worthy of your trust and loyalty. He is the Lord of both this world with its wars and famines and hopes and fears, and all its petty and great powers, and he is Lord of all that is to come in this world and the next. Glory to him, to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
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