You can download this sermon as a Word document here.
Until recent days in Britain – even until a few months ago - we were able to listen to this passage from Matthew’s Gospel from a slightly objective distance. Jesus uses phrases here that we could barely imagine relating to us: “Nation will rise against nation”, “They will hand you over and will put you to death”, “You will be hated by all nations because of my name”. These may have sounded to us, in previous times, like phrases from a bygone age when Christians faced real persecution or, at the very least, relevant only to those parts of the world today where our Christian brothers and sisters are persecuted for the faith.
Perhaps now though, we don’t have the luxury of objective distance anymore. The rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the reality of Islamist terrorism on our own doorstep, almost quite literally, has meant that we must re-interpret and re-hear these words for ourselves today. Every day now, the news is full of stories of Christians being persecuted for the faith. And it is something we must engage with as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world.
What we want to do, of course, is try to make some sense of the times in which we live. As Christians, we don’t believe that history is a series of random events but that, even in the darkest of times, God is still in control and he is Lord of all. Well, of course, the desire to understand the course of world events is deeply embedded in the psychology of all human beings because we have been created as spiritual beings.
And that was just as true during the times of Jesus as it is for us now. And the passage we heard read from Matthew’s Gospel is an example of his disciples trying to make sense of the signs of the times and work out what it meant for God to be sovereign over all creation. And this passage has a lot to say to us in our particular day and age. So if you want to follow it with me, you’ll find it on page 28 in the New Testament, the second half of the Bible.
But first, as always, a bit of background to the reading itself…
The disciples and Jesus were leaving the Temple area in Jerusalem and one of them looks up at the incredible building around them. And the Temple was truly incredible! In terms of space, it took up one-sixth of the whole of Jerusalem. The Courtyard of the Temple was the size of 6 football pitches. The south-east corner of the Temple platform was 200 feet above the floor of the Kidron Valley beside it. The Temple was truly, truly impressive - an incredible sight that dominated the city and the skyline. So, it’s no wonder that his disciples said were marveling at this amazing place.
But the response that Jesus gives in verse 2 is absolutely mind-blowing: “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus isn’t giving a Fabric Report here. This is not his version of a Quinquennial. Jesus is making a profound comment that cuts to the very heart of the national identity of the Jewish nation; the nation that found its identity in its relationship with Jehovah God, the nation that symbolized its place as the Chosen Race in this magnificent Temple. Jesus’ words are not a comment on the demise of a building. They are words that cut to the very heart of how the nation of Israel should understand itself. The power and the privilege will crumble and be overthrown.
This was a shocking statement that left the disciples absolutely stunned; they simply did not know how to react. And we know that, because the next verse begins, “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives…” The disciples had been stunned into silence in the Temple courtyard and gave no response to Jesus there or as they left that huge area or as they descended into the Kidron Valley or as they crossed it. It was only when they had eventually made their way onto the Mount of Olives that the conversation picks up again.
The other Gospel writers tell us that it was Peter, James, John and Andrew who ask the question: not about the Temple, but about the demise of the nation and the re-writing of culture and society as they know it. Verse 3: “Tell us, when will this be?” they ask. “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus makes two points, both of which are pertinent for us today.
1. Do not be deceived
In verse 4, Jesus says, “Beware that no-one leads you astray. For many will come in my name saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.”
There are many people who will try to sell books and ideas on the back of cultural shifts and wars and difficulties in society. There are many preachers who will try to grow their churches by interpreting the Scriptures in dramatic ways that, as Paul says in his letter to Timothy, will tickle the ears of their hearers. Some examples of this are quite famous and very shocking. You may remember the Family, set up by Charles Manson, who murdered Sharon Tate and 5 others in 1969. You may remember the James Jones cult in Jamestown, Guyana, where 900 members committed suicide in 1978. You may remember the Waco disaster in 1993, where 73 people died under the orders of David Koresh. But, most of the time, deception can come in far more subtle ways. There are some who will interpret the Scriptures in ways that titillate and excite and try to reveal meanings in the Bible that frankly are just not there…
And Jesus counsels against such preachers and teachers. We are not to be deceived. We are to take a measured approach to Scripture and seek to find in it the Word of God to us in ways that will lead us into a deeper walk with God.
We are not to be deceived.
And so, in the light of that, Jesus makes his second point to us: that we are to change the subject from these false preachers.
2. Change the story
As Jesus makes clear here, wars and famines and natural disasters are not signs of the ends of the age. They are the beginning of the birth pangs. And I think that what he is trying to say is this:
When we reflect on the tragedies of the world, it is wrong for us to use those tragedies to somehow turn it into a theological debate, an abstract argument, about when Jesus may or may not be returning. That’s what the false teachers do…
What we are called to do is to recognize that tragedies are a call for us to be transformed and for us to work for the transformation of society and the systems that oppress people. Jesus uses the destruction of the Temple as a symbol of the destruction of all those systems and institutions that oppress people and exclude them. The end of the Temple is the beginning of the birth pangs: the birth pangs of justice and freedom from oppression.
The destruction of the Temple does not mark the end - it marks the beginning! It marks the beginning of the overthrow of systems and institutions that oppress and perpetrate injustice. It is the beginning of an era where peace and justice and freedom reign. And so, ultimately, the question for us in the light of this passage is this: Not “When will Jesus return?” but “What can we do, as individuals and as a church to bring peace and justice and freedom to a world in need?”
Crucially, we need to examine our own lives and our church to see if there are any ways in which we perpetuate injustice or do not promote peace or stifle freedom and then do everything we can to face up to that and make the changes necessary. Our God is a God who longs for us to experience peace. Our God is a God who offers each one of us ultimate freedom. Our God is a God who is jealous for justice. And we are to do all that we can to reflect the character of God in our community and beyond.
The disciples asked: “What will happen to show us that the time has come?”
What will happen is this: The Church of God – including St. Andrew’s – will promote peace in the community. The Church of God – including St. Andrew’s - will challenge injustice and work for justice for the poor and oppressed. The Church of God – including St. Andrew’s - will promote freedom for individuals and society as a whole. These are the signs of the times. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God.
These must be our priorities for the future of St. Andrew’s.