Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 14th November 2010, the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Remembrance Sunday.
As I was reading the gospel passage for today I have to admit I immediately thought of Frank Sinatra’s song… “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. My friends, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain. I’ve lived a life that’s full, I travelled each and every highway, and more, much more than this, I did it my way.” I’m told this is a favourite for funerals, which winds ministers up to no end. I have to say, even if I do like Frank Sinatra’s music, which of course says nothing about my age, and even if I do admire his assertion that he lived ‘a life that’s full’, I still think nobody does it entirely their way. Maybe for this reason, Sinatra himself didn’t really like the song.
There are always things beyond our control, things that happen to us without us having much choice in the matter. For many of us, this is highly problematic. Certainly, I would like to think that I’m in control of my own destiny and that my life now is a result of my choices; and the choices that I make now will determine my future. Otherwise, how can I assume responsibility for what happens to me?
Often we don’t realize how interdependent we are as human beings. Our lives are not only influenced by our own choices, but also by the choices of people around us. I am married today because I made that choice, but also because an unsuspecting 19 year old girl made the same choice. I am your minister today not only because I chose to apply to this church, but also because you elected and called me to be your minister.
But what happens when our lives are not only influenced, but radically changed by factors which seem to be completely unrelated to us? The very thought of external factors having a radical effect on our lives can be truly terrifying. This is an existential fear in all of us.
And on that note, I don’t know about you, but I like to watch apocalyptic films. As it happens, about this time last year Sony Pictures released another film about the end of world. The film is called 2012, and it was produced by Roland Emerich, who also produced “Independance day”, “The day after tomorrow” and “Godzilla”. You can probably spot the obsession there…
But the whole end of the world theme is not just a good excuse to showcase state of the art special effects, with enormous tidal waves sweeping across whole states, and lifting an aircraft carrier and crashing it over the White House. It does seem to me to connect with our own anxiety about how our normal lives could suddenly change beyond recognition, at a blink of an eye.
Perhaps this is more difficult for us to imagine or think about here in Scotland, where we enjoy peace and normality of life. Sometimes I have to exercise my imagination and put myself in the shoes of people living in conflict areas, where peace and normality are a thing of the past, or, in some cases, are completely unknown experiences.
Imagine walking down the street without any guarantee whatsoever that you will make it to the shop without being shot at, or without the shop being blown up by a suicide bomber. Imagine having to sneak out under the cover of darkness to go to church, out of fear of being jailed or killed by a savagely anti-Christian government.
And to make it even more vivid, imagine waking up tomorrow morning and seeing tanks and armed militia patrolling the streets of Bishopton, Erskine and Langbank, imposing curfews and severely restricting our freedom of movement.
However difficult that may be for us to imagine, this is an everyday experience for many people in the world today. If this happened to us tomorrow, we would probably think that the end of the world arrived. But for many people in the world today, the end of days is an everyday experience.
The same kind of scenario was contemplated by the disciples when Jesus told them that the temple would be torn down, and ‘not a single stone will be left in its place’. For the Jews, the destruction of the temple was a terrifying thought, which immediately made them think about the end of days. In their minds, the nation would not survive without the temple at its centre.
And after Jesus tells them this, the disciples want to know when the end will come. Jesus not only doesn’t tell them when it will happen, but also gives them some more bad news: there will be wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, terrible things falling from the sky, and before all these things happen, they would be persecuted and hated by everyone for following Jesus.
Now that didn’t sound very encouraging to the disciples. You don’t want to hear your master tell you that if you follow him you will be persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for his name. Imagine me telling you that if you want to be church members, you may be persecuted and even killed. This is not exactly a good marketing technique. For many Christians in the world today, this is exactly what church membership means.
We enjoy religious freedom in this country because heroic people sacrificed their lives to defend our freedom. But we should never take it for granted. This is a costly freedom, which is why we take the time every year to remember those who paid the price.
But what about us? We may not be called today to a discipleship that is costly on those terms; our lives are certainly not under threat because we are church members. But being called to be disciples of Jesus Christ means that we are called to invest our lives in the values of the kingdom of God. And as many of us already probably discovered, fighting for kingdom values is not always easy. Fighting for social and economic justice is not going to make us very popular with world governments and giant corporations.
We may not have to defend ourselves against an unjust Empire who occupied our land by force, but we are called to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is often bad news for those who hold global economic and political power. Fighting for economic justice and Fair Trade will not make us popular with large trade corporations. Fighting for social justice and equal opportunities will not make us popular with many governments.
We should never think that being a Christian is only about us making individual choices that affect our own individual lives. We don’t live in a bubble. We are all interconnected, and our calling as disciples extends to the whole of life, in all its complexity. Jesus never said it would be easy. But he did say to his disciples that they will be hated because of him.
For many people, the obsession with the end of days is a way of escaping the responsibility of being a disciple in the present. Christians tend to suffer from what someone described as ‘Jesus come quickly because this world’s a mess’ mentality.
If you have a terrifying exam on Tuesday, as horrible as it may sound, if the world came to an end on Monday, maybe you won’t have to study or worry about the exam. As I was mentioning last week when we talked about the resurrection, an unhealthy obsession with the afterlife can have a devastating effect on the life we live now.
Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world was coming to an end the next day. He said he would plant a tree. What would you do? What would you do if you knew you had a few more days to live? Would you radically change your life? Would you alter your everyday routine? Would it make you think more about yourself and less about others, or the other way around?
These are all good questions for us to ask, but for most of the time, we need to hear Jesus’ words: “Don’t be afraid when you hear of wars and revolutions; such things must happen first, but they do not mean that the end is near.” Jesus doesn’t tell us what to look for which will help us determine when the end is indeed near. In the same ambiguous lines of last week’s passage, Jesus only says when it is NOT near.
The message here is that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by apparently apocalyptic events, no matter how hopeful they would make us that the end was near, and release from responsibility would come.
We need to focus on telling the Good News. That is our goal. We are called to focus on making God’s kingdom come, on insuring that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, regardless of the cost.
And in the midst of all the difficulties and persecutions that come with that calling, we are assured of God’s inspiration and wisdom. We are assured that we are under God’s protection, and that nothing – not even death or fear of death – can separate us from his love and care.