Benediction Online

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Serenity in the end times

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

Mark 13:1-8
We are coming to the end of the Church’s year so today’s readings turn to the end times. Less than fifty years after Jesus’ words, the temple was indeed destroyed. There was a successful Jewish rebellion in the year 66. Four years later Rome laid siege to Jerusalem and decimated it. The first century historian Josephus claims that over a million people were killed. The temple was never rebuilt. It was the end of religion centered on the temple and the sacrifices offered there.  After this, Judaism developed as it already had in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. Instead of the Temple and sacrifice led by priests it was based on the synagogue and the Torah taught by rabbis. The Jews of Jesus’ day really were living in the end times. The end times of the world as they knew it.

Today people all over the world are living in the end times: the people of Palestine, the people of Syria, the Congo, parts of the Sudan, Somalia. Farmers’ livelihoods have been devastated by drought in Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Mid-West. The people of the New Jersey shore are experiencing the end times as their homes and businesses are left devastated by storm and flood.

We are fortunate here to have a mellow climate but we too are living in end times. Climate change is affecting us. Bird migration patterns are changing. The monarch butterflies are becoming more scarce as they have to live through more extreme weather on their migration routes. Our weather is more extreme – both hotter and colder. Los Osos is becoming a different place.

Personally too we are living in end times. Our lives change overnight. One day we are secure and doing well but then disaster strikes – an accident, an illness, unemployment, bankruptcy. Relationships end. People die. Nothing is secure. The people and places in our lives which provide the security that the temple provided for the Jewish people are all subject to sudden change, even without the catastrophe of war or nuclear meltdown.

My brother Richard was a priest. In his Christmas letters he almost invariably talked about the immense problems the world was facing and wondered how and whether we would all survive. I used to think his letters were deeply depressing. But now I have a similar sense of the impermanence of everything. Our faith narrative keeps us aware that everything is temporary, except for God and God’s love.

So, just as we balance living in the reign of God which is both here and not yet here, so too we balance living in the moment and enjoying the blessings that abound around us, with the knowledge that this is all passing much more quickly than we would like and everything could change overnight.

How do we do it? How do we stay present even when the present is undependable?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives us some ideas.

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Even when the ground is shifting under our feet, even when everything seems bleak and we don’t know what will happen next, we know that “God who has promised is faithful.” We only have to look at Jesus’ life and death to know that God’s faithfulness does not guarantee us an easy and comfortable life. But our confidence in God’s faithfulness, in God’s love for us, enables us to live with serenity in times of grave difficulty.

Yet serenity requires some work on our part, because we have to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” What is our hope? Our hope is that underneath it all is something substantial. Underneath all the changes, underneath all the difficulty is God’s love. Our hope is that God loves us more than we can imagine. The deepest, most faithful love we have ever experienced with another person or companion animal is only a weak reflection of God’s love which wraps us round and holds us up. Given that God loves us that much, we no longer need to cling to our anxieties and our fears. If God be for us, who can be against us?

Serenity takes practice. If we cannot deal with the little irritations of our day to day lives when things are going well, how will we deal with them when things are not going well? I encourage you to practice letting go of how you think things should be and living serenely with how things are. Your spiritual practice will not suddenly develop depth and consistency when you need it most. Now is the time to be learning serenity. Now is the time to be practicing meditation and contemplative prayer.

The writer to the Hebrews continues “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So this isn’t just about our individual lives, it isn’t just about personally letting our fear and judgmental nature go as we develop the serenity to live in this impermanent world, it is also about living together and supporting one another.

As the Day approaches – the Day of the Lord – the end time for the world as we know it – as that day approaches, it is important to meet together to worship God and to remind ourselves that God’s love underpins all things. It is important to meet together to encourage one another and “provoke” one another to love and good deeds. Ours is not a path of spiritual bypass where we look away from the things of this world and focus instead on some heavenly plane. No, Jesus’ disciples are called to be practical, canny, engaged people, always looking for ways to further God’s reign and demonstrate God’s love. And we are called to do it together.

Going back to the gospel reading - Jesus tells us that there will be difficulty – there will be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine, but we are not to let our hearts be troubled. I don’t think he meant that we should be uncaring, and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent war and to help those who are victims of human violence and natural disaster. I think he meant that we should not lose our hope in the reign of God, our confidence that resurrection always comes, that God brings new life out of death and destruction.

The destruction of the temple was not the end of Judaism. The death of Jesus was not the end of his teachings. Both events led to new possibilities, new hope and a new way of life which has sustained billions of people over thousands of years. But at the time, they seemed to be terrible disasters.

Let us never forget that our hope is in the God who loves us extravagantly, who always brings resurrection and who, in the end times, will prove to be the one who is faithful and powerful.


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