Today, the second Sunday before Advent, had a gospel reading that I wasn’t sure if we should use or not. I was very tempted to go with the usual John passage that contains the famous verse:
13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
But when we looked at Mark 13.1-8 in our midweek bible study group on Wednesday evening the consensus of opinion was that Jesus was describing the wars and conflicts that we see around us now. So I decided to preach on it. Unusually, I got a compliment at the end of the service from one of our regular members. She said it was the best sermon I’ve preached there. I’m not so sure, but it obviously touched her. And I am thankful that she said so. Here it is: I have also clipped the section from the service video. Click here to watch.
The End is Nigh! I cringe whenever I see the people shouting out in shopping centres, calling people to repent! Not my style – it probably puts more people off than attracts. However, when you look at the world around us there are conflicts, famines, the effects of climate change etc. We are remembering the war that was supposed to end all wars. And we recognise that it didn’t succeed.
Is the end Nigh? We don’t know. Jesus never told us about WHEN the end would happen. Just that it would happen. And that we would experience wars and nations vying for power.
He didn’t mention, Russia, China, America etc… or even Great Britain. But we all know that the superpowers of the world these days, at the press of a button, could start the end of it all.
Jesus uses a surprising image when answering his disciples’ question about the end. Childbirth. Going into labour is something that is familiar to us all. But in Jesus’ day it went on behind closed doors where only the women were allowed. Even as recent as 1950s, my dad was ushered out of the bedroom when I was being born. Men could only hear the noises of pain. And probably be glad it wasn’t them and that they will never know first hand. [I am thankful for the reflection in The Church Times for this insight.]
We don’t know what the end of the world will be like. But we know that on the way to it there will be wars. We don’t know what war is like. Fortunately for most of us it’s something that happens in another country.
When you read stories of what people go through in war, we wonder how we would cope. We fear the unknown.
Jesus is helping his disciples with their fear of the unknown. We all know that the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself. Whether that’s waiting for the dentist, or an operation or indeed giving birth for the first time. We don’t like pain.
Some people think that there can’t be a God because he allows suffering and pain. Others believe that suffering is deserved and a punishment for sin. I believe that when God saw the pain and suffering that sin causes, he decided to do something about it.
He became human – born in the pain and danger of human birth – and grew up to be rejected, wrongly accused and executed in the most painful and shameful method possible. He came to be the solution for the sin and pain of the world.
When he walked the earth Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived. But it isn’t fully here yet. It’s a bit like a pregnancy. You have a baby, growing and kicking inside, but are you a mother or father? To become a parent you need to go through labour and childbirth and finally hold the child and then get on with the business of raising them.
We are in the days of the Kingdom of God being here on earth – but not fully. It’s growing but not yet fully developed and totally here. In the meantime, there are labour pains.
He says to his disciples, and to us, there may be trouble ahead, but hold on fast to me and my teaching.
His teaching includes
- Love your enemy
- Blessed are the peacemakers and those who work for what is right
- Walk the extra mile
- Turn the other cheek
All those things that are so difficult for us – they go against our human nature and desire for revenge and retaliation.
Yet those of us who are Christian are warned as were the first disciples, that human power and wealth, all that the temple in Jerusalem stood for, will fall. Standing up for what is right and defying evil in the world will always be unpopular and will be dangerous.
And for many will include giving their lives in defence of others, as was the case with the wars we remember today.
We are here to remember those who gave their lives that we might live in peace. Or in the words of The Kohima Epitaph
‘When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.’
How do we respond? With thanksgiving, yes. Obviously. With respect. Yes. With a commitment to working towards a world of peace? I hope so. We do so with God’s help and with hope in Jesus who is the one who can change the world. And he does it through us. Marie Curie quotation is very apt.
“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”
We will sing Jerusalem in a few minutes. Adopted by the WI it spurs us on to patriotic feelings and a desire to build a better world with social justice for all. Despite me having to hold my tongue from shouting out NO to the question of did Jesus’ feet walk here, I remind myself that although Jesus did not visit England when he was physically on earth, he IS here in England now through his body, the church.
He works in and through us by his Holy Spirit.
I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand until this country and the world is indeed under God’s reign of justice and peace.
The mental fight reminds me to continue to pray for those in power and authority as well as for those in need. It reminds me to continue to pray, not my will but yours Lord.
And the sword I have in my hand is the sword of the spirit, the word of God. The bible.
The soldiers in WW1 were all issued with a bible – or selections from the bible.
And one such bible has been passed down the family of Pte Curtis Welsby, from Manchester in the 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment.
When his friend Jamie died in Afghanistan in March 2013, just weeks before their battalion was to return to the UK, Pte Welsby turned to the Bible.
He carried an Armed Services Testament from 1916 in his body armour. After his friend’s death he found himself reading Revelation 21.4. It reads, ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’
Pte Welsby says: ‘I was upset, I was angry and every emotion I could go through,’ ‘We all had our body armour on. I noticed the Bible popping out a little bit from my pocket. I went to put it back and then I thought, “No, I’m going to read it. I need something to make me feel good right now”.’
Randomly, he found himself at Revelation. ‘I read it over and over again,’ he recalls. ‘And I thought, there’s nothing for Jamie to worry about now. ‘It was exactly what I needed to read, because what happened was so totally devastating and unexpected.’
Pte Welsby’s little New Testament has seen five conflicts. It first belonged to his great-great grandfather, a teenager who fought in WW1 having lied about his age to join the army.
It was passed on to his son who took it with him to the battlefields of WW2. It then travelled to Korea with Pte Welsby’s grandfather and spent time in Northern Ireland with his uncle.
Its thin pages are worn with use and it readily falls open both at Acts and John. But it’s Revelation that spoke to Pte Welsby on his tour of Afghanistan in 2012-13.
‘Arriving in Afghanistan was scary,’ he recalls. ‘When you leave Camp Bastion you realise that it’s really real. It’s you and your friends now. ‘I kept my Bible with me in my pocket all the time and it calmed me down. I thought that God would be looking down over me. I had a sense of him being with me.
‘I would pull it out and read it when we went on patrol and I had a tingling feeling go through my body every time. Anything could happen. Nobody had a clue what would happen. But, when I picked up my Bible, I felt that nothing would happen to us. We got into fire-fights, but we always got out of them.
‘When we were out on patrols and we would stop and I would pull it out and the stories in there make you feel happy. I could read it all day. ‘The local kids used to ask me for it. But I always said “no”. It’s been in my family for so long. It’ll be passed on to my nephew. He’s only seven, but he already wants to be in the army.’
All five generations of Pte Welsby’s family have served in the infantry, so it is perhaps surprising that both the Bible and men survived. ‘It means a lot to me,’ he says. ‘All of my family have read it. I wish I could know what they read.
‘But me and my granddad were very close and we both liked exactly the same things. I reckon he had a hand in saying, “Stop at that page”. I reckon somehow he guided me to reading Revelation.’
An encouraging story. I do feel I should add that the bible doesn’t work like a good luck charm. Many other men had faith, read their bibles, and yet were still killed.
The passage from Revelation that spoke to Pte Welsby’s heart is from one that I sometimes use at funerals, especially if we will be singing Jerusalem.
Revelation chapter 21 shows us an image of what the future is going to be like, when the End is no longer nigh, but has arrived. The new heaven and earth will come down, like a bride dressed for her husband, a new Jerusalem. God will no longer be in a temple but living with his people in a new way. We get a glimpse of that now, as we know God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. But in the time to come there will be no more death, no more mourning, and no more pain.
The bible has been important to many people throughout the years because it contains hope. It acknowledges the failings of human beings and points to the one who can bring peace in our lives – as individuals when we turn to him and as communities when we live together as he taught – Loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves – which is how we can sum up in one phrase what it means for God’s Kingdom to come – both here and now, and in that time when the world is re-created anew.