This is my most recent sermon. I’d like to thank an unnamed wiblogger for her help in getting this proofed and picking up the typos.
Readings – Hebrews 10:11-14,19-25, Mark 13:1-8
When I was at university, rather like a good number of the students I now work with, I had a bit of a crisis. The crisis was of identity and where I fitted into this strange thing called life. I’d left all that I’d known, my family, my church, my friends, all the different communities I was part of. I didn’t know where I was without them nor did I know where to turn for support when all that I was familiar with had crumbled down. In view of the world I saw and experienced at university I was changed, and more so than I could imagine or predict. It wasn’t always easy but I couldn’t go back from it either. I was alone in a strange city with nobody I’d known for more than a couple of day or weeks and hundreds of miles from home. Where could I go?
Well, I knew that I wasn’t entirely alone no matter how much I felt I was. I had God with me. I had the security that I was not being left to cope alone and I also knew that I could go in search of other Christians too. With them I might, just might, have something in common and could find the community I was looking for. I found the support and love I needed in the student group and church I joined and in the new friends and spiritual family I found there. The church I went to at uni was about as different from the one I’d left as you could imagine but it wasn’t the familiarity of the liturgy or the style of worship that were of supreme importance. More important to me was whether I felt I was part of an active Christian community remaining faithful to God and living out their faith honestly and sincerely. They were there for me in the difficult times and offered me the hope I needed to hold onto and a way of looking forward. They also offered me complete and unconditional love and encouragement. It was such a lovely place and through it I, and my faith, grew and developed. I was an active member of the church too, contributing back into the community that meant so much to me in the hope it would be there for others too. Building was a bit of a shocker though. Good thing I wasn’t looking for a pretty church or awe inspiring building. Despite leaving university over three years ago now, I’m still in touch with many people from there and they are as close to me as the family I grew up with. It was the community of people of God that were faithful to God, aware of the needs of its members and loving to all who came into it.
The experience of losing all that you’re familiar with is similar to what the disciples were being told about in Mark’s Gospel. All that they were used to with was going to change. The temple symbolised the centre of religious and cultural life in Jerusalem, and was quite an awe inspiring structure – it was huge! It dominated the skyline of Jerusalem! It wasn’t just the building that was huge – the influence it held over all aspects of life was equally as large. When Jesus predicted its destruction, the damage to the building was not entirely what he was referring to. He is speaking more broadly of the political, cultural and religious influence it had, and how that would end. How often do we hear people say ‘something came crumbling down’ and expect them to mean a physical thing? I’ve already used the phrase this morning and I certainly wasn’t referring to physical destruction. Jesus is talking about the changes that come with the new order he is introducing. He has changed things, and will continue to do so through his death and resurrection and ongoing legacy – but that hadn’t happened when the Disciples were discussing the future of the temple. Jesus was bringing peoples attention back to God, and in the process is removing the need to follow the old traditions of the Jewish laws. Like so many times in the Old Testament we read that the people were still undertaking religious duties but were neglecting God. We also hear this criticism repeatedly in the New Testament too. In the reading we heard this morning, Jesus was reminding the disciples not to get distracted by false teachers. The people were too distracted by the traditions and ceremonies to remember that God was behind them. God was lost in the face of religion and culture.
We still have those temptations now and are in danger of losing God again – through consumerism, the cult of celebrity, work, hobbies, family or even church, we can lose sight of God in our lives. We have our own rituals and routines. But how many of us allow time for God, let alone him being the focus of our lives. The false teachers we need to avoid are those things which distract us from remaining true to our faith and to God. Only we know what our own distractions are but we do need to overcome them. Mark’s Gospel reminds us that even when Jesus was saying that, his disciples were getting distracted by concerns about how long they’d have to do that for. They are asking for a key to the signs so they will know when the end will come – when they won’t have to worry about the distractions any more. Jesus doesn’t answer this at all or maybe in typical Jesus style, answers the question that they didn’t ask!. He warns them instead that it’s going to be a real challenge to follow him but that it will be worth it and we have to remain true to God. Being a Christian, he tells us, will involve wars, torment, earthquakes, destruction and more. Like the temple coming crumbling down earlier, it’s worth considering these as symbols for the problems to be faced rather than actual literal predictions. When Mark’s gospel was written, the early church was already being persecuted and it is with that view that we can approach the list of tragedies. Some of them would have been personal and some broader, but all the community would have been aware of the problems they were facing. In fact, by the time Mark’s gospel was written the temple had been destroyed and I’d imagine that this fact would make Jesus’ warning all the more relevant. It gave them something to hold onto when they were feeling oppressed – Jesus was there with them. He was going through it with them and they could hold true to their faith in him.
This is where we get to the second of our readings. Again, the community – this time not in Jerusalem, were being told to hold true to their faith and being reminded that Jesus had overthrown the old way of living. They are also encouraged to remain true to their faith and that Jesus will remain true to them. We, too, can hold onto this promise. If we remain faithful to Jesus he will remain so to us.
The second point we can take from the readings this morning is again something I found in my church at university. We can and do need to be part of a community. When I left for university the minister from my home church sent a letter to the chaplain letting him know I was coming and asked him to get in touch with me. During my first week I got a letter welcoming me to the university and letting me know there was a friendly chaplain I could go to should I want to. I did, and it was his church I got involved with. When I went to see him, he remembered he’d written to me and it was really lovely to think that there was someone looking out for me. This is just one aspect of the Christian community that we can see and appreciate from Hebrews. While the style and content was very different from the one I received from my chaplain, the idea of someone looking out for the interests of another remains the same. The letter writer is offering hope to a distanced community and emphasises the importance of consideration, love and encouragement for its members. He wants the readers to consider the needs and requirements of the wider community. He focuses on the relationship we have with Christ and God through Jesus’ sacrifice but sets that reassurance within the context of a community. Like the Christians when Mark was writing, the Hebrews Christians were being persecuted for their faith. It was all the more important to remind them that they were not alone – the letter itself was one way of doing that, but also reminding the readers of their special relationship with God through Jesus, but we’ll come back to that.
The letter to the Hebrews encourages them to focus on considering 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. This was particularly relevant for a community under oppression because you’d never know what was going to happen next and who would be affected in what way. Meeting each other would have been important to check that everyone was okay or coming to terms with what it meant when someone wasn’t. Encouraging with other, provoking good deeds and showing love would be particularly important as it must have been hard to deal with living in such conditions. Encouraging people to hold true to their faith must have been very difficult when that faith could very easily get them killed. While we are not in danger of being arrested and killed by the UK government or Birmingham City Council for our faith, the values the Hebrews were advised to consider would be well suited to the church here and in the wider circuit. I’m sure we do many of them anyway, but it is a good aim to hold to – to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.
As I found when I went to university those things are invaluable. It’s also all the more relevant when people are having difficult times and that brings us back to the challenges suggested by Mark. When the world comes crumbling down, to know that you can find love and encouragement is all the more important. Each of us will need it at some time or another, and some more often than others. Each of us will also need to offer it too and if we all look out for one another we’ll get a long way. Sometimes we need to do both at the same time and that’s not always easy but through the community we can, and do, do it. When I first arrived at university it was certainly the case that I needed that support and when I got to the second year I was able to offer it to the freshers on their arrival. When I had bad days people were there for me and when they had bad days I was there for them. It was a real honour and privilege to do so – and also to know that there were people doing it for me. It really did, and continues to, show the love and hope of Christ lived out.
Hope is the final of the points we can hold onto from our readings today. It goes back to the special relationship with Christ we touched upon earlier. Jesus, over thrower of the old laws, source of our hope and love and foundation of our communities, also brings us to a unique relationship with God. Through his sacrifice we are made perfect and can enter into God’s Kingdom. Hebrews talks of us no longer being separated from God – God is with us and each of us is with him. We are welcomed into his home and cleansed and purified. This is quite some hope. When we are feeling down and under pressure this is a hope we can hold onto. No matter how bad we are feeling in ourselves, how guilty we are feeling for the things we have and haven’t done, for the hurt we experience and seeing those we love suffer, we can remember that each of us is perfected through Christ.
I can’t even begin to imagine how important and liberating that would have been to the earliest Christians who received the letter. When dealing with people, as is the case within communities, we run the risk of hurting and being hurt by each other. Of letting people down and not doing what we should. Sometimes we do what’s spot on, we get it right, we make a difference in a good way. We can and are there for other people and often find ourselves being there and offering hope when we’re not expecting it. Even when we make mistakes and get things wrong, which I certainly did at university and continue to do so now, we are still pure and clean in the eyes of God. We are perfected through Jesus. We have the hope offered by our relationship with God, we have the hope and promise of the love of Jesus. We have the hope and support of the Christian communities we’re in. We can and should share these hopes with the other members of the community. We can look forwards in the knowledge of this hope.
The readings this morning offer us many challenges – how are we to live our lives faithfully? How can we show love to all that come to us? Warts and all! How can we find hope? How can we live these things out in the community of God? Each of these things is possible through Jesus. By putting our faith in him we can receive and share his love and hope. By remaining faithful to him we will find ourselves on the receiving end of those things to and will be strengthened and nourished by them. By sharing together in a community we can see the best of these things at work and be there to support each other when we need it too. We can and will find ourselves living out the Kingdom of God here on earth.