Collect for Trinity XXIII
HEAVENLY Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory
we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 65, Vv 17-25
2 Thessalonians 3, Vv 6-13
St Luke 21, Vv 5-19
I take as my text the concluding verse of this morning’s Gospel, ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’ The King James’ Authorised Version has, ‘In your patience possess ye your souls.’ The Jerusalem Bible gives us, ‘Your endurance will win you your lives.’ The New English Bible tells us, ‘By standing firm you will win true life for yourselves.’ There are other translations in other versions. They all give us the same picture – that of maintaining steadfastness in the face of persecution.
Chapter twenty-one of Luke’s Gospel begins with Jesus observing rich people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, offering alms, as we should say today, and seeing a poor widow put in two small, copper coins. He observed that the widow had, in effect, put in more than all of the others – ‘for they contributed out of their abundance, she put in all she had to live on.’ This observation of Our Lord led on to a discussion with his disciples about the structure of the temple and the way in which it was decorated with beautiful stones and gifts, all dedicated to God. Jesus predicted the fall of the temple, when ‘one stone will not be left upon another.’ Historians tell us that there was an uprising of the Jews in Jerusalem in about AD68 and that in AD70 the Romans overthrew the city. Eighty thousand troops under Emperor Titus set the city on fire after a siege lasting many months. Indeed, not one stone was left standing upon another. The city was flattened, razed to the ground. The only structurally viable building that remained was a small garrison for the occupying army.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. The authors of the synoptic gospels seem to indicate that this was his first visit, certainly in his adult ministry, although Saint John tells us that he went there for several important Jewish festivals. Jesus had told his followers that he must go up to Jerusalem to die. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel we read, ‘From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.’ Elsewhere, in Saint Luke, we read that Jesus said, ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.’ In this journey towards his betrayal, trials and crucifixion Jesus continued with his teaching of the twelve. They had so much to learn and so little time in which to do it. Jesus was concerned that other teachers and prophets might mislead the disciples. ‘Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.’ He then gives them a preview, as it were, of the dangers they face when he has gone. He talks of nation rising against nation, of kingdom against kingdom; of plagues, famines and earthquakes. He tells them that they will be imprisoned and made to testify. He predicts family betrayal, hatred and death.
Can we imagine how these frightened men must have felt? They had joined a band of itinerant followers of this charismatic man from Nazareth; a man who told wonderful stories and performed amazing miracles. They became principal members of his company. They were given understanding by means of example and parable. The amount of teaching that the disciples received cannot be guessed at from the gospels. I read some while ago that all the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels could, if uttered with due gravity and emphasis, be pronounced in about six hours! Even if Jesus ministry lasted just one year (and it is generally accepted that it lasted about three) then he must have taught them and showed them much more. The closing verse of Saint John’s Gospel says, ‘But there were also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’
The disciples, then, were told that no rosy future awaited them – things would get difficult. However, Jesus told them that they need not even think of preparing a defence against their persecutors, for, ‘I will give you the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’ Then he told them that they would be, ‘hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish,’ Then Jesus gives them the punch line – ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’ By this he surely meant that their endurance would gain them places in the kingdom of heaven.
Two thousand years on and little seems to have changed. We may seem to live under an illusion that the world we inhabit is generally a peaceable place, but deep down we know that there is discord and anger, resentment and malevolence. Let me give you just a few examples. We have nations that cannot seem to live in peaceful co-existence, where no amount of diplomatic effort has any lasting effect. Despotic rulers and ruthless governments around the world hold their respective populations in thrall. Millions in Africa, Asia and South America live in starvation or below the poverty line. Many have no safe, clean drinking water. Each year thousands of children die of disease. Refugees pile up at national frontiers and eke out a miserable existence in squalid camps. Everywhere there is the threat of terrorism, with indiscriminate attacks perpetrated on innocent and unsuspecting citizens. It does not stretch our imagination too far to see at Ground Zero in down-town Manhattan, in the aftermath of the eleventh of September, 2001, parallels with first century Jerusalem where, ‘not one stone will be left upon another.’ This was no latter day Titus with battalions to besiege and raze the city – this was naked terrorism, but the results were much the same. Yet, despite all this, in our western world we continued to live, praise God, in relative comfort, luxury and contentment.
We are today’s disciples of Our Blessed Lord. We should be found walking alongside him on our way to our ultimate and heavenly destination. What would he say to us? Would he tell us of nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom? Would we hear that some of us would be put to death, as happened to thousands in New York, London, Washington, Bali and Madrid? Would we be hated because of his name? Would we be the lucky ones, told that not a hair on our heads will perish, as generally seems to have been our fortune thus far? Would we be told that, ‘by our endurance we shall gain our souls’?
The perfection of the love of God cannot be fully reflected in us because we are sinners, but, as we know, Jesus came in to our world to die so that our sins might be forgiven. Saint Paul in a letter to Timothy wrote, ‘This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ We are all sinners but in Christ we have a full and true hope of salvation. When Jesus hanged upon the tree, Satan and the sins of the whole world railed against him, so much so that we are told that darkness descended over the whole earth. From the sin of Adam, through many ruthless and tyrannical rulers of the ancient world up to our present times and the wickedness seen in the likes of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Slobodan Milosevic and Osama bin Laden and many others, down to our own individual sins, be they large or small – Christ died for them all! We are taught to believe that this is so. Modern acts of evil and terrorist attacks on innocent victims might cause us to stop, to think, to consider. But we are taught to believe, to strive, to persevere. In a word we must be steadfast; we must demonstrate endurance to gain our souls.
However, we do not stand alone in these endeavours. Within this holy sacrament of the altar we are joined together, for a brief moment, outside the world’s constraints of space and time, with Christians down the ages. Many of these have been timid and confused by the world in which they lived and have simply not known what to do; others boldly accepted persecution and death in the faith of their crucified, risen and ascended Lord. Many were just like us. The bread and the wine that are actually and physically the Body and Blood of our living Saviour uniquely give us the courage and the strength to face the world with all of its difficulties and uncertainties. As part of the whole company of earth and heaven, met together round this altar this morning, let us take heart in those words of Jesus that concluded our Gospel, ‘By your endurance you shall gain your souls.’
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