Sermon podcast: 2 before Advent11 Nov 2019 By Sermon Podcasts
Carey Saleh, Vicar of Stourport-on-Severn & Wilden , 17 November 2019.
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This isn’t a touchy-feely gospel passage is it? No “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” But then I don’t think he was ever that. Certainly such an image didn’t come from today’s reading, as Jesus reveals with courageous honesty the struggles ahead. He appears to predict the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the overthrowing of Jerusalem, and the very real hardships that would follow for Jews and followers of the Way. But he could have been talking to people through all the ages since on a personal, national and international scale. Economic, political, and environmental concerns so severe that the closest bonds and family ties may are strained and sometimes broken. Sound familiar?
When you hear of these things, Jesus says, do not be terrified. There are many exhortations in scripture for us not to be afraid. But do not be terrified has a particular edge to it. It suggests that those things that are happening are hugely significant, destructive and potentially- sometimes catastrophically – life-changing.
I wonder if it feels like that for you right now. Even putting world or national events aside, I wonder what war, or battle, or disaster, or grief is raging for you personally. What earthquake has shattered your world, your equilibrium, your family? Even your faith? What terror shakes you to the core?
Do not be terrified.
The word terror is from the Latin word –terrere - to shake, to tremble. It is a fear that affects us physically as though the very solid ground beneath us – the terra firma - can no longer be trusted to support or hold us. It is linked to the French verb affrayer – to disturb – from which we get our word affray – a group fight in a public place which disturbs the peace. When we are afraid our sense of peace is disturbed, personally and collectively. The familiar has become unfamiliar and its very unfamiliarity makes our sense of self tenuous.
Jesus doesn’t promise to make it all go away. He promises no special dispensation on suffering because we follow him. Quite the opposite in fact. But despite all that is going on around us, we can hold firm to God’s love for us. We are held in the palm of God’s hand, and there is nowhere we can go where God is not.
God is there with us through whatever battle rages within us or around us, whatever chaos might try to rob of us of any strength or clarity to do battle.
I know many brave folk who have travelled and continue to travel through circumstances that seem beset with challenge, pain, loss, illness, betrayal and deep disappointment. Many are strengthened by a deep faith in God’s love and presence amidst the apparent chaos that life can bring. We may weep and rage; God can take it. These emotions may indeed be a way into the prayers which at first seemed impossible to utter. But we need not be terrified – not even of our own feelings. They tell us that something is wrong, and we need to pay attention to them.
The Psalm for today – Psalm 98 – asks us to sing a new song. Not a song of terror, pessimism or cynicism or self-pity. But a song that celebrates God’s constant care and protection and great love. It is a song that sings of God’s strength in which all creation may find a voice; a sign of inner strength. The seas roar, the hills sing, and the floods clap their hands. It is a song of jubilant praise sung in hope and faith that God will vindicate God’s people. So by definition, it is a song that is sung in a time when such vindication and strength is needed. A time when things are not yet as they should be; but a declaration that God will come to bring justice and righteousness to all the earth. It is not sung with heads in the sand, pretending all is well; rather with the wisdom that sees all is not yet well with the faith that believes God, creator of all that is, can be depended upon to make all things well in ways we may not yet understand.
I’m sure that many of us look at the world, our country, our relationships, look at the suffering of those we love, and say that things are not as they should be. Many of us – I know it’s true for me and my own family – have known or know now those things that could rock the very foundations of our lives, our sense of self. But in God we find ourselves again. We need not be terrified. We need not be shaken. Whatever is happening in our lives is known intimately by God who is there with us.
We might wonder why God doesn’t appear to act more quickly, concisely, and throw a few thunder bolts to set the record straight. But that is not God’s way. God’s power is revealed in the most unexpected of ways. Stand firm and don’t be terrified, said Jesus, for there may be dreadful portents; but there will be great signs from heaven. When I was training as a nurse, we were taught to recognise the signs and symptoms of particular conditions. Symptoms – like portents – can be painful and difficult. Signs are to tell us what we should be noticing in the illness to guide us in the work of treating and healing.
We need to learn to see the signs. For the signs of heaven may not always be what we expect or what we pray for. Greatness can come in such gentle guises.
“Fear not”, some poor shepherds were once told in the midst of poverty and Roman rule, “for God has sent you a saviour”. It must have seemed ridiculous. What kind of saviour was this? A refugee baby against the power and might of Rome? This shall be a sign to you; a baby wrapped in swaddling bands. A sign that God is with you.God slips in quietly, unobtrusively, with such vulnerable love in order to show that God’s ways are not our ways.
A word and a wisdom that no opponent will be able to withstand or contradict. We could do with such a sign, such a word, such a wisdom right now, don’t you think? Perhaps this season of Remembrance, of All Saints and All Souls helps us call to mind those who have travelled this way before us and encouraged us in the faith. It is the season we count down to Advent because every Advent we wait once more for the coming of such a sign, such a Word, such a Wisdom. God with us. Here and now.