St Nicholas Church Harpenden,
15 November 2015
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
The events in Paris have rightly stopped us all in our tracks. Sadly, we are becoming used to acts of terrorism but the level of atrocity Friday night shocks us. Partly because it is so close to home. Partly because so many were killed and injured. Given these events, what are we to think? What can we say?
Reactions to such events vary. Every immediate reaction is valid as it is our humanity and our personality responding. But as Christians we have to be thoughtful and prayerful in how we respond in the long term. We must be thoughtful and prayerful in the theology we use to interpret these events to ourselves and to others.
Of course an immediate response is to ask why? There is no easy answer to this and we must avoid any attempt to give a quick, facile answer. God has given to his creation a measure of freedom. Human beings use that freedom to do evil as well as good. God does not ‘stop’ things. He is not a puppet master controlling all the strings. Thus, he shares in our pain and sorrow when evil acts. He has promised that because of Christ’s passion and resurrection, one day, evil will be judged and banished in the new creation. As Christians we have the confidence that evil will not prevail.
Another reaction is shock and sadness which is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. It is in some ways a compassionate reaction which identifies with those who were the victims. But we can not rest in that place. There is something we can do. We can turn our sadness and helplessness into loving action, to become a force for good and kindness in the world.
Another reaction is anger. Again, this is a valid and understandable response. But we cannot rest in that anger, for if we nurture that anger we will eventually want and need to direct that anger against something or someone. In too many cases, anger leads eventually to blaming others and to revenge. There is in these criminal events a rightful justice which must follow. We hope and pray that the police and authorities will bring to justice some or all of those involved in committing these atrocities. But we must not allow ourselves to become agents of anger who become hardened in some way to other humans or groups of humans. It is common and a very primitive response to seek to protect our communities by becoming tribal. So often after an event like this, people begin to persecute others. No doubt many Muslims and even the refugees who themselves fled the ones who have claimed responsibility will face abuse by those whose anger leads to inappropriate revenge or prejudice.
Let me share with you reflections which the former Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, wrote after the London bombings in 2005.
He said: “We cannot avoid considering the nature of evil in attacks such as these. I will not use the word “sick”, of the perpetrators, because that is not strong enough and in any case is based on the notion that the person is unable to choose what causes the sickness, but to plant a bomb is to make a deliberate and wilful choice – a choice which flies in the face of all normal understandings of what it means to be human. It is to decide to destroy, rather than build up, to fragment rather than to reconcile, to maim rather than heal. Evil and chaos are horribly intertwined.
The question we have to ask is how to defeat evil – and the answer lies not only in the physical sphere in which we have to decide how we shall physically resist it; it also resides in the legal sphere, in which in a democratic society, law has to take its proper and un-corrupt course. It lies in the mental sphere in which we have always to search for and uphold truth with tenacity and humility. It lies in the moral sphere in which we have to commit ourselves to try to live righteously, whilst recognising that we are also very flawed and need to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness when we get things wrong. It lies in the spiritual sphere when we have to commit ourselves daily to goodness and light, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies to God in Christ, that we may be part of his atoning and healing love for our world.
Evil, ultimately, is overcome by goodness; darkness, ultimately, is overcome by light – but the cost can be, and frequently is, very high. The crucifixion of Christ was the place where all that was evil took chaos to its final destiny, death – but was then transformed by the power and glory of Christ’s resurrection.
We need, as Christian people, to seek God’s strength that we may be courageous; to seek his mercy as we recognise within ourselves our own propensity for sin and evil; to seek his wisdom that we may know how to help change the hearts of all those, terrorists included, who want, out of malice, to cause suffering and despair.
In the end, the only way is the way of Christ and the way to Christ. It is to that way we need during events such as these to commit ourselves afresh – because to do so is in itself a way of combating evil and chaos”. End of quote.
This leads me back to our readings this morning. The violence of Jesus’ words in Mark 13 is there. The Romans would one day destroy that which the Jewish people cherished and even held sacred: the temple. That destruction would not only destroy the temple; it would involve the bloodshed of many. It would be a ruthless violent imposition of power. But Jesus does not call the disciples to arms. He simply warns that change will come; that evil will have its day. He puts it into perspective this violence; this change is but the birth pangs of a new age. A new age will be the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death.
Jesus’ prediction of the second temple’s destruction is just before the greatest in-breaking of God into our history, the cross and resurrection. The cross and empty tomb changed it all. For centuries Jews knew how to relate to God by keeping the Law and making sacrifices in the Temple. But Jesus was the final sacrifice whose pure love and innocent blood brought redemption for all people for all time. He made the temple redundant because his righteousness becomes our righteousness through faith. Because of Jesus we can call God, Our Father. The cross and empty tomb began a new age.
This morning we stand in the shadow of darkness and violence. We cannot be complacent and simply carry on as is if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different. We must ensure that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution…as God would have us be. We must, however, avoid the solutions which are driven by purely primitive emotions and reactions.
Each day we must recognise that we have God’s presence and power in us, transforming us and leading us. Yes, as humans we will stumble in his leading. Sometimes we will do things in our own strength. But God is there with us and in us. As we follow the way of the cross in the power of the resurrection we can be instruments of peace and life. In so doing, we can overcome the tendency toward bitterness and revenge. We can overcome the darkness and the evil around us. As we heard from the letter to the Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the end of days approaching.
Revd Canon Dennis Stamps