Our world can look solid and dependable. Buildings are made of hard materials; the earth is made of rock that stays put; we have machines and mechanisms to control our environments. Even in the past, when there was less technology, people were able to build with huge blocks of stone and make fabulous buildings like the Temple in Jerusalem. However Jesus warned his disciples that even such a wonderful and strong building as that would not last for long. We can’t depend on material goods for our security; our security should rest in Jesus who is always dependable and always present for us in times of trouble and of joy.
The readings for the service on 18th November were Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8. My reflection follows:
When an expectant mother, particularly a first time expectant mother, is preparing for the birth of her child, one of the questions she is likely to ask is: How soon should I go to hospital when labour starts? Most advice suggests that once contractions are coming regularly every 5 minutes it is probably time to head to the hospital. Even if the expectant mother follows this advice precisely, there is no guarantee when her baby may be born. Some mothers will still be in labour for many hours once they arrive at the hospital; others may struggle to get there before the baby chooses to be born! The signs of labour can often, but not always, be recognised but the length of labour is very variable. It would be a very foolish midwife who would predict a precise time for a baby to be born.
Jesus often used experiences with which his listeners would be familiar to explain matters of eternal significance. In our Gospel reading he talked about birth pangs. Surely all his disciples would have known of mothers going into labour, possibly their own mothers. They would have been as familiar as we are with the variation in the length of labour. What they wanted to know was when the great events they were anticipating would come about. When would the new age be ushered in? When would Jesus drive out the Romans? When would there be a king to sit on the throne of David once again?
Just as an expectant mother can be told the signs to look out for which suggest labour is beginning, Jesus gave the disciples signs to look out for: nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. Jesus didn’t give a date, a precise countdown to the end of the age. He gave signs. He also gave a warning: there will be those who will try to mislead others, pretending to be Jesus.
We know that this has happened. Self-appointed prophets have led many astray as Jesus predicted. They have looked at what is going on in the world and declared when the end will come. Jesus, however, was very clear that the signs to be seen will be only the beginning of the birth pangs. Labour can last a very long time after the onset of the first contractions. When we look at the signs Jesus listed, they could belong to any age. Nations have always risen against nation. We have only to read the news of the day to know about the tragic violence in the Land of the Holy One which is claiming lives today. Or in Syria where attempts at ceasefires seem doomed to failure. Or at Baghdad where only in the last couple of days 119 people have been killed in car bombs. Nations, ideologies, kingdoms continue to rise against one another.
We cannot trust in there being peace in our world any time soon. Nor can we predict when God will finally step in and bring about a complete change, restoring the world to its rightful state. We also cannot trust in what seems solid around us. The disciples commented to Jesus about the wonderful Temple buildings. The Temple wasn’t complete in Jesus’ day but it was already a fabulous building, shining with gold, the greatest construction for hundreds of miles around. If you look at the stones used to construct the part that is still there, they are huge. They look as though nothing could ever move them. But Jesus knew that within forty years that Temple would be razed to the ground by the Romans after the Jews rebelled against them. Sitting on the Mount of Olives with a view over the whole city, he calmly predicted that that view would not survive for much longer.
Similarly the people of Christchurch New Zealand must have looked at their beautiful cathedral, looking solid and permanent. However, after the earthquakes in that area they are facing the sad sight of the remains of the building being brought down for the sake of safety. Likewise the people of New York have seen their buildings devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The people of Japan saw their lives swept away by a tsunami which followed an earthquake. However solid and dependable our world and the works of our hands look, they are not permanent and not to be depended upon.
Jesus knew what we would face when he talked to his disciples and he told them not to fear. Fear is a hugely debilitating emotion. It can prevent us taking action in dangerous situations. It can hold us back from trying something because we fear failure. Knowing that Jesus is with us can help us to overcome fear. We are never alone in any situation, whether that be war, famine, earthquake, bereavement, unemployment, sickness or other everyday disasters which can befall anyone. Jesus always walks with us into everything that happens to us. We can depend on him totally.
Another way we can depend on Jesus is explained by the writer of the Hebrews. In the Jewish faith, the priests offered sacrifices for sin but those sacrifices were not actually able to take all the sins of the people away. They had to be offered time and again for every sin. However, Jesus offered himself as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. As a result he has perfected us. Imagine! You and I are perfect because of what Jesus has done. We are perfect for all time. We can depend on what Jesus has done. There is no need for constant sacrifices to try to undo the wrong we have done by sinning. God states that he will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more.
When we feel weighed down by our sins, ashamed of what we have done, we can be too fearful to approach God. We may expect him to condemn us. We don’t want God’s eyes to look at us directly. In the past the people didn’t come directly to God but were pleased to let the priests approach God on their behalf. Even the priests were careful and only once a year did a priest go into the Holy of Holies, into God’s presence.
All that changed when Jesus died for us and the curtain in the Temple, which separated sinful people from a holy God, was torn apart. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, we now have a ‘new and living way’ to approach God. We can relate directly to God without the need of priests as intermediaries. We can stand before God without being paralyzed by fear. We stand before him as people made holy by Christ, whose consciences are clear and whose bodies are washed clean. We are assured that we are beloved children in the presence of our delighted Father. This is grace, undeserved favour that God delights to give to us.
What Jesus has also given us is hope. He rose from death, defeating death forever, and one day he will return to accomplish that which the disciples were looking forward to. We don’t know when, though we may recognize some of the signs, but we do know it will happen. We know because ‘he who has promised is faithful’. Unlike us, God does not break his promises. He can be totally relied upon. We are to hold fast to this promise no matter what happens around us. There is no need to fear.
We don’t know how long we have to wait for all that God plans to come about. However, we know what we should be doing while we wait. We are to encourage one another in loving, in doing good and in meeting together. In this way we will all grow in our faith and in holiness. We will be helping the laws God has written in our hearts to bear fruit.
Fear is not part of the calling of the Christian. With God at our right hand, we will be able to walk through life without falling, as the psalmist declares. Whether we hear of wars or rumours of wars, if our buildings are destroyed or we meet disasters in our lives, we can still be assured that Jesus is with us. If we make mistakes, deliberately or inadvertently, we are still assured that the sacrifice for our sins, Jesus the great high priest, is effective. We can always have confidence in God’s promises.
Let us remember with the psalmist:
You will show me the path of life;
in your presence is the fullness of joy
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor