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A Sermon from Sherborne
Who is in charge
Many years ago, perhaps at my Confirmation class, I was told to read the Gospel of the coming Sunday at the beginning of the week, every Monday. That way, the Gospel would be turning over somewhere in the mind all week and the Sunday sermon would then make more sense. I’ve done that ever since, for more than 70 years, and I would recommend it to anyone.
Of course in those days it was a lot easier because there was only one Book of Common Prayer. It was pocket-size and all you had to do was turn to the next page each week. Now there are three books, A, B and C. They are certainly not pocket-size and each Sunday has three services, called, first, ‘Principal Service’, then ‘Second Service’ and then ‘Third Service’, with three readings each, making nine readings to choose from once you have found the right book, and don’t forget we change from Book C to Book A, not next week, but the week after. Why have we made it so complicated?
But I still keep my weekly ritual and last Monday was confronted by the disasters we have just heard in today’s gospel [Luke 21. 5-19]:
‘Look Master, those beautiful stones dedicated to God’ and Jesus’ reply: ‘Not one stone will be left, all will be thrown down’ Destruction! And then ‘Beware you are not led astray, many will say ‘I am he’ and Jesus’ warns: ‘Do not go after them’. False teaching added to Destruction!
And then ’There will be earthquakes, plagues, famines, dreaded signs from the heavens’ Ah, is that global warming getting a look in, added to false teaching and destruction!
And then ‘Nation will rise against nation and kingdom within kingdom’. Oh dear, wars and civil strife to add to destruction, false teaching and global warming
And then ‘you will be handed over to prisons, you will be brought before kings and governors, you will be betrayed by parents and brothers’ Oh no, Persecution to add to destruction, false teaching, wars, civil strife and global warming.
Oh dear, I thought, sorry for the preacher this week. And then the realisation that with Guntars away celebrating Latvian independence, the preacher would be me!
Which of these terrible themes to take up? My solution was to read on, beyond where today’s Gospel ends, looking for better news around the corner, only to find things getting worse! Luke goes on to record Jesus saying that the people will hide in the hills, there would be distress among the nations, the roaring of the sea, men fainting for fear, they would fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive. And ‘woe to them that are with child and to them that give suck, the powers of heaven shall be shaken’.
And that, according to Luke, is where Jesus’ teaching closes – in images of desolation, of turmoil, of ruin. All seems lost, chaos rules! Shakespeare’s Macduff says it rather well when he laments the state of his Scottish homeland: ‘Each morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven in the face’: a good summary of Jesus’ warning of the dark clouds gathering. In Sherborne a protective veil shields us, a sort of ozone layer wraps round us.
But none of us, in our personal lives, can escape dark clouds at some time. The desolation of bereavement or, its sister, the desolation of loneliness; the bleakness of no work, or its sister – feeling unwanted, unneeded; the disappointment of family failings when high hopes are dashed; the anger caused by injustice, the limitations imposed by sickness. None of us entirely escapes these afflictions and some of us suffer a cruel overdose of them. Most of us feel overcome by the dark cloud of disillusion at some stage. Hamlet sums it up: ‘The time is out of joint! O cursed spite that ever I was born to put it right’. But how can we put it right? That’s the point. ‘We can’t’ ‘It’s all too much’
And is that really the end of Jesus’ teaching? Is that really how it all ends? Chaotic disorder? Mortal man squelching in the mire? This raises a huge theological/philosophical question: Is God in control and if so, why is He allowing such a mess? Or has He passed control to the humanity he created? In which case, what further use is He? These are the questions the new generations are asking. And our answers differ. But Luke, having expressed the awful truth of the state of the world, has another chapter to write. And if I tell what is in it, I will be intruding on next week’s gospel and next week’s preacher.
So why not begin the excellent habit of reading the coming Gospel on Monday morning and begin preparing for Luke’s response to the bitter and chaotic state of the world and the conflicts which savage our own lives.
But today Jesus, through Luke, has brought us to face the truth; the world is in a sad and sorry state, and in hidden ways many of us are too. And the puzzle remains. Who is in charge? God? Then why doesn’t he do a better job? Humans? Then what further use is God? Thank you Luke for confronting us with this challenge.