This evening’s second lesson, from the St Mark’s Little Apocalypse, depicts the disciples as rather star-struck tourists, overwhelmed at the wonderful architecture in Jerusalem. Perhaps like many tourists in our fair city, confused by the buildings, and intimidated by the magnitude, complexity, and beauty around them. ‘Look teacher, what large stones, what large buildings!’
It’s reassuring to find this continuity with the way that we respond to our environment today. It isa wonder that our city remains and amid such breakneck speed of change. If you wonder down Merton Street, one could be in almost any century of the last three, were it not for speeding Deliveroo mopeds dribbling hot pizza on the cobblestones.
We can be lulled into a sense of imagining that everything around us is permanent. We feel secure in cities like Oxford: the building of the new Islamic Centre on Marston Road has great significance for our Muslim brothers and sisters – and it is building of great beauty. We want to build a tabernacle for all that we hold holy. Just as Peter James and John on Mount Tabor wanted to build something permanent when they saw Jesus transfigured, tabernacles for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Israelite religion had struggled with two competing ideas about the building of the temple. David had wished to build one, but the texts suggest that there is a danger in such an endeavour: David was ashamed that he dwelt in a beautiful palace whilst God’s presence camped in a tent. David, no doubt, wanted the assurance that God was with Israel permanently. But ‘God does not dwell in houses built by human hands’ came the response. Yet David’s son, Solomon, was granted to build the temple in Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt of course, but on this site the God of Israel had been worshipped for centuries. The temple that disciples witnessed pointed to that enormous inheritance. And here they were, with their friend Jesus, pointing to the accessibility of the God of Israel, and being confronted by large stone blocks.
The mission of Jesus to Israel, and through the disciples, to the whole gentile world, had to face large blocks of stone. They, no-doubt, felt oppressed at the spectacle, the embodied the massive task they faced, of becoming the living temple where God and creation were indeed to meet. The observations of the tourists reveal the conflict that lies ahead. There will come a time when the religious edifices and buildings, when every block which stands in the way will crumble: ‘not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
This hardly seems a cheerful end to the Christian year. All that gives us identity, hope and purpose will be shaken. All our achievements relinquished. In the first century, there was an environment of the expectation of the end of the age. They were always wars and rumours of wars: the early church does not have to wait long to see the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. And further atrocities in the second century. Indeed there has not beena century in human history without the collapse of the familiar, the ordered, the beautiful. Stones have always been destroyed – it is the way with our world. Jesus makes it very clear to his disciples that they are not to be taken-in or alarmed when there is insecurity, or conflict, or violence. Rather, as human beings we are to be prepared: prepared less to build not large stone edifices for our false security, than to prepare by careful planning for the welfare and security of all. In the story of Daniel, we heard of King Nebuchadnezzar – of his pride and his vanity, but ultimately his being open to being convinced that those of his servants who worship the God of Israel were not disloyal after all, but faithful and true, even if that could cost them their security and lives.
The large oppressive stones which the disciples see, point to such obstacles that lie around and within them. It is not only the obstacles set in our paths that block our advance, but the blockages within us.
We are the product of many generations’ genetic development and human experience. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have an untapped resourcefulness and an urge to push out into the deep. But we also know that we inherit damage: we have personalities which we are only partly able to understand, and rarely change! There are things about our lives which we do not understand – we have character strengths and weaknesses, and with discipline, experience, and understanding we can go some way towards maturity, but it is never just a self-help program.
Life, friendship, trust, experience, understanding others, and other people’s understanding of us, are all the signs of active grace setting about re-shaping us to be fit for purpose. That’s a long process, there are key people in our experience who move us on, moments of epiphany and disclosure: but We can’t do it without a network of friendships and relationships to draw us out of our closed selves. No one magic figure or thing, Jesus warns his disciples in that reading, no-one coming and claiming to make everything all right at once, like a lottery win for our personalities or souls, will reallychange things. Beware of being conned.
Though we want to avoid them, the birth pangs are painful, yet we aremade to transcend our limitations; we seem to be hard-wired to relinquish the imperfect, the inadequate, and the incomplete, and to move onwards into deeper gentleness, more truthful generosity, and a vivid vitality that is not simply our ‘nice’, imagined security. Some people will want to trap us in our anger, and we can sometimes prefer to imagine that ‘being supported’ means people colluding with us and telling us we are right and they are wrong. We can come to think that we deserve being apologized to and thanked, and that’s what other people are for. That’s not being strong, dignified, or superior, it’s being infantile.
But seeing this, do not despair, rather, rejoice and be glad, that even when we see immense blockages to what we desire, we are not to be disillusioned, or taken-in. Persist, dare to see the biggest picture, with ourselves as part of the problem andpart of the solution: resilience is keeping faithful to God, though all other things erode. That ultimate concern of human life and experience will not go away, and nothing can block it. So when we are tripped-up by our personality traits, when our aims and objectives seem blocked, when we feel exposed, foolish, vulnerable, and weak: take heart. Everything that damages you, and curtails humanity’s flourishing will indeed all be thrown down. There comes a tender king, to whom the world will sometimes try to offer gifts, and at other times despise and reject: but who comes in our humanity to re-mould us from within, to give us hearts of tender love rather than stone, to give us understanding, resolve and purpose, to give us the capacity to love and forgive and not to be fooled into brittle judgmental harshness.
These things can never be lost, this Giver will never abandon us, though all else fall.