StJohn&StStephens-logo

IMG_9614

Rough Justice

Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7. 9 – 14 | John 18. 33 – 37

I expect that Matthew Bridges, the young academic from Durham, tried a few days ago on charges of spying in the UAE, and there sentenced to life imprisonment, will soon be released and allowed home.

Whatever the story – his treatment was rough – and his hearing and sentencing, all conducted in Arabic in the space of five minutes without the presence of his lawyer was shocking to say the least.

But shabby treatment, if I can put it as mildly as that, has not been unknown in our courts either. Remember the Birmingham Six, convicted and sentenced in 1975 to what was to be a 16-year stint in prison on the basis of brutally forced confessions, circumstantial evidence, blatantly fabricated police statements and the forensic evidence of one later assessed as incompetent.

In prison, one of the men, Paddy Hill, had written more than 1000 detailed letters appealing to lawyers, MPs and journalists, most of whom never replied. Of the few who did, almost all wrote, ‘I fear the odds against you are overwhelming.’

But in the end, all were pronounced totally innocent and on 14 March 1991 walked free.

If I had wanted, I could have tracked down the name of the judge who, on what proved to be the flimsiest of grounds, had sentenced the six. Few, except those immediately caught up in the trial will recall it today, but week by week, year by year, century after century, the name of the undistinguished, sometime Roman Governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, who sent Jesus to his death in an atmosphere and under circumstances every bit as corrupt, rotten, dark and devious as those that surrounded the trial of the six – is remembered.

The higher Jewish religious authorities loathed Jesus. The ordinary people loved him and his teaching, especially when it exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘religious’. His generosity of spirit, reckless compassion and unfortunate association with the dregs of society troubled and appalled them. In their minds he had to go. He was a threat to all that they most cherished – their traditions, their status and their carefully maintained position with Rome, whose assistance was vital if their plans to do away with Jesus properly were to be accomplished.

The Trial of Jesus

We are familiar with the details of Jesus’ trial but perhaps so familiar that its conduct ceases to shock us. A disciple was turned, Roman soldiers were borrowed from the governor, disreputable characters enlisted to invent charges against Jesus, the inner council of Jewish leaders were summoned from their beds and all was carried out under cover of darkness – which a Jewish scholar has pointed out was only one of numerous reasons why the proceedings were illegal.

Today’s gospel begins with the delivery of Jesus by the Jewish authorities to Pilate. He had loaned them soldiers for the arrest and must have expected their return in the early hours with the prisoner, but the text makes clear he was hardly thrilled to see them. Occupier and occupied, then as now on the same land live in an uneasy state of mutual suspicion and mistrust – and as here – scarcely concealed contempt.

Immediately before our gospel, comes this sentence, ‘The Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman Governor . . . and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, the Jews did not enter the palace, they wanted to eat the Passover’ (John 18.23) on which Archbishop William Temple commented long ago, ‘They were demanding the crucifixion of the Lord of glory but no one thought of that as defilement.’ And yet ironically in the Jews later effective blackmailing of Pilate – ‘Let this man go and you are no friend of Caesar’s’ (John 19.12) they unwittingly ensured that Jesus’ death got maximum publicity and Jesus’ prediction – ‘I when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself,’ (John12.32) – fulfilment.

Throughout John’s long, dramatic and carefully recorded account of the exchanges that followed between Jesus and Pilate, which minute the steps by which Pilate was persuaded to condemn one whom he believed to be innocent – Jesus, bound, bruised and very likely bloodied too – remains poised, quietly confident and in control – even playful. Asked by Pilate if he was King of the Jews, he replied, ‘Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?’ This drew forth the sharp riposte, ‘Am I a Jew?!’ Jesus did not deny he was a king but told his questioner that his kingdom was, ‘from another place.’

Another Kingdom

Pilate thought of kingdoms and of empire in terms of legions and law. The kingdom of which Christ spoke was ruled by the constraining love of God and active in the hearts of all who gave their allegiance to its king. Earlier in the evening, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, quoted to their horror from the book of Daniel and spoke calmly and confidently of the day when he would come on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26.64)

Our Old Testament reading today, also from Daniel, Jesus would similarly have taken to himself. ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7.14)

Those words are carved in Greek on the wall of the great and beautiful Umayyid mosque, once a cathedral in the centre of Damascus. Sometimes Christ’s kingdom makes its greatest strides, if that’s the right word, in the hardest places. I think of the priest from Maalula, a largely Christian town in Syria, who worked tirelessly through the past years to care for and keep together both Christian and Muslim, till he was kidnapped and brutally killed by ISIS. Two days ago, I received a report from Syria describing how so many of the churches there today are full, both Christian and Muslim finding within their walls friendship, courage and hope.

On New Year’s Eve 1944, in the German city of Stuttgart, German pastor and theologian Helmut Thieleke addressed an anxious and fearful congregation as bombs fell and said, ‘We know not what will come but in the end, we know who will come, and if the last hour belongs to him, we shall not care what the next minute brings.’

We live in uncertain, and some would say, dangerous times but that glorious conviction in Christ’s return and ultimate victory is no reason for us to opt out and abdicate responsibility for engaging with the sufferings and struggles of our time, rather it is a moment to ask individually and as a Christian community with humble devotion as subjects of our King, ‘Lord Jesus, what would you have us do for you today?’

‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Timothy 1. 17)

 

 

Device-to-root-out-evil-Dennis Oppenheim

Would you like to know the future?

Mark 131-8, Daniel 121-3: End Times

Kingdom 3, 18th November 2018

Would you like to know the future?  Could be handy if you could place bets on horse races knowing the result in advance; though perhaps not entirely honest.  When you first think about it, it sounds interesting, and you can think of lots of possibilities.  If only you had known how that relationship would turn out.  But would you really want to know, especially if you cannot change it?  There has been discussion about genetic tests for hereditary diseases.  Would you want to know you had a terrible disease coming at you later in life?  It could give you time to prepare.  But what a burden on your life now.  Maybe it is not such a good idea.

 

Science fiction is full of time travel – Dr. Who is on at the moment – but it is by no means clear that it is actually possible.  You can theoretically go forwards in time, by relativity.  If you travel fast in space, time passes more slowly than if you stay on earth, so when you get back, your friends and family will be a bit older than you are.  Astronaut Scott Kelly spent 11 months circling the earth on the International Space Station, and when he got back he was younger than his twin brother.  But only by 11ms, 0.011s.  As far as we know, we cannot go backwards in time, or see into the future.  God seems to have put some fundamental blocks in physics that prevent time getting in too much of a muddle.

 

Our readings today are both prophecies.  Both Daniel and Jesus are looking forward to future times.  The common understanding of the word prophecy, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition, is a prediction of what will happen in the future.  So perhaps this is a way in which we can know the future.  But looking at these passages, and at prophecy in the Bible generally, that is only a part of the story- as we shall see.

 

Last week, our reading had Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh, but it did not happen, much to Jonah’s annoyance; God changed his mind when the Ninevites repented.  It was not the accuracy of the prophecy that mattered, but its effect.

 

This week’s passage in Mark has the disciples admiring the magnificent buildings of the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was reputedly made of blocks of white stone 11m x 5½m x 3½m – two of them would be bigger than our church.  Jesus, typically, takes the conversation as a starting point for teaching the disciples: not one stone will be left standing on another.  Also typically, he does not explain what he means until Peter, James, John and Andrew come and ask him later.

 

Jesus’ teaching goes on a lot further than today’s reading, for the whole of the rest of Chapter 13.  He starts by warning against interpreting events as signs of end times.  There will be wars and famine and persecution.  There will be false messiahs.  Do not be deceived, but stay faithful.

 

Then he talks about End Times.  Even from our perspective in the future, it is difficult to be sure which parts of the passage refer to what.  In those days seems to refer part of the time to siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD70.  This was a time of great suffering for those living in Jerusalem, with somewhere around a million people killed.  It was a calamity for the Jews, and effectively the end of Israel until the 20th century.  The stones of the Temple were indeed thrown down, not one was left standing.  Jesus’ words in our reading do seem readily to point to this event.  But he moves on, without defining that he is talking about something else, to talk about  the Second Coming: At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (1326).

 

All the way through, Jesus hedges his prophecy about with warnings.  Look out for the signs, but do not be deceived by events, no-one knows the day or the hour, only the Father.  Be aware of the signs, but just be ready.

 

There is actually not much teaching about end times in the New Testament, ignoring Revelation.  This passage has a parallel in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.  There is a similar piece in Luke 17, and bits in 1 and 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter; and of course, Revelation.  In the Old Testament, Daniel is the main place.

 

These prophecies are difficult.  They do tend to attract intense and rather weird extremes of Christianity.  Christians have disputes about historical and dispensation premillenialism, post millennialism, amillenialism, all coming from how you view the 1000 years in Revelation.  There was a book in the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, in which he identified lots of the elements of Revelation with actual countries.  He had the European Economic Community as Babylon the Great ruled by the Antichrist, equating it with the beast with 7 heads and 10 crowns in Revelation 131, because the EEC at that time was working up to 10 members.  Some Brexiteers may sympathise with his analysis, but there now being 28 members in the EU, events seem to have rather overtaken him.

 

If it is so difficult to interpret prophecy, why is it there?  The disciples had asked Jesus specifically, when will these things happen?  And what are the signs that they are about to be fulfilled?  But without hindsight, it was not at all straightforward to understand what he was talking about.

 

Tony Vigars did a series of sermons and studies on Revelation here in 2004.  Much of his interpretation of Revelation was that the images are symbolic, rather than historical prediction.  What applies to Revelation seems to apply to most of the End Times prophecy.

 

When we look at the Bible we do so through a filter of our modern culture.  Our education is analytical, literal, historical.  We have had such success with science and technology that we expect to understand things, to be able to see a chain of causation.  We expect reports to be factual, logical.  But this would not have been the mindset in Old Testament time, or Jesus’ time.  We are dealing with images and types and descriptions that were poetic, evocative, absorbed in childhood through stories and synagogue, much as fairy tales are in our time.  When I say, to quote Flanders and Swan, Who’s been sleeping in my porridge?, you will probably get the reference.

 

Prophecy is speaking God’s message into a situation.  There are occasions when, yes, it does predict events (and a test of a prophet was, when that such predictions should come true – Deuteronomy 1822).  More often, it is interpretation of events to show Gods’s purpose behind it.

 

So what do we make of the Second Coming?  After this sermon, we will say in the creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Advent, in just a couple of weeks’ time, both looks back to Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem, but also to his coming in the future: Lo he comes with clouds descending.  Yet many of us, I think, would be hard pushed to say what we really think this means.  When will it be?  I was at a Readers’ training day last weekend with the title Making Friends with St Paul, and the Jesuit priest who was leading it was asked, Did Paul ever change his mind?  The example he gave was about the Second Coming.  In the early letters, Thessalonians, Paul expect Christ’s return immanently.  Later, Paul realises that it is not necessarily going to be soon.  We are now some 80 generations later, and it has not happened yet.  If Paul did not know, and if Jesus said only the Father knows, I do not think we are going to do much better.

 

What is it going to be like?  Again, it is almost impossible to say.  The imagery Jesus uses in dramatic, but again poetic, imaginative.  Just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matthew 2427)  With our current understanding of the way the universe is arranged, it is hard to see how it can be literal.

 

But in terms of meaning, we can see a message.  At the beginning, through him all things were made, and all things will end with him.  History will not just fizzle out, but in some way Christ will bring it to a close.  The same Jesus who listens to our prayers has a cosmic importance.  We shall be called to him, which is a daunting thought, but we can meet him in peace, because of the love he has shown for us.  Whether the world ends tomorrow, or billions of years hence, he is out Lord, and he say, ‘Watch’.

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

 

Mark 13

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

 

Daniel 12

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.