Preached this morning at St. Mary’s, Auburn and Christ Church, Berwick, in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, at the kind invitation of the Rev’d Charles Bull. Thanks to both congregations for a warm welcome and good worship. MP+

A Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost,
Preached at St. Mary’s Church, Auburn, and Christ Church, Berwick
Lectionary Year C: Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18),19-25

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mk 13:7)

It’s a great pleasure to be with you this morning, and a great honour to be allowed to share your rector’s pulpit. I bring you greetings from the people of St. Mark’s protestant chapel in Greenwood, some of whom I think some of you know, as they seemed well aware that I am in your parish this Sunday. I also bring you greetings from the Anglican clergy serving as chaplains with the Canadian Forces and from our Bishop Ordinary, the Right Reverend Peter Coffin. There are roughly a dozen of us serving in this Diocese, and we are grateful to you and to your bishops for your support of our ministry. When Charles and I were discussing my visit to this parish, we were first thinking that I would come on Remembrance Day, which would have been delightful but that is, as you can imagine, a busy time for a military chaplain. Had I been here then my sermon would no doubt have had a backwards looking quality, as is fitting for a day dedicated to historical memory. This Sunday however I want to look forward, as prompted by my text from today’s gospel reading: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mk 13:7).

Today’s gospel comes from an episode in the last days of Jesus’ ministry as described by St. Mark. Some of his disciples, like the proverbial country mice in the city, are impressed by the size and grandeur of Jerusalem and of the Temple built by King Herod. Jesus is unimpressed with these buildings, and after predicting the destruction of the Temple, goes on to describe what the last days of humanity will look like. He describes wars and natural disasters and religious confusion, but in the midst of these grim predictions Jesus says, almost casually, “do not be alarmed”. It’s that simple phrase, “do not be alarmed”, that I wish to focus on because in it we hear one of the greatest and simplest of the messages of good news that we call the Christian gospel. “Do not be alarmed” is also the hardest advice to follow when we are faced with the possibility of things ending.

Yesterday I read a news story about how a NASA astronomer is being plagued with calls and emails from people who are convinced that the end is coming – in 2012, to be exact. This scientist has heard a few teenagers say that they want to commit suicide and has also heard from several mothers saying they are thinking about killing their young children in order to spare them from the end of the world. These folks appear to be spooked by a film soon to be released by Sony Pictures called “2012”, which takes an ancient Mayan calendar, a mystery planet, and other cosmic forces and cooks them into movie where pretty much everything in the world gets destroyed. The director, Roland Emmerich, has made several previous disaster films, including “Independence Day” when the world nearly gets destroyed by aliens, and “The Day After Tomorrow”, which climate change freezes half the Earth. When I watched the trailer of “2012” on the internet, it showed some powerful religious symbols being destroyed, such as the famous Christo Redemptor statue standing over Rio de Janiero and the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, which we see crushing the Pope and a crowd of Christians praying for mercy. While these images don’t hold out much hope for God, the trailer suggests that there is hope and that a few humans, played by photogenic actors, who will survive the coming apocalypse. Besides this movie, there are apparently dozens of books on the market describing the coming apocalypse of 2012 and giving some helpful suggestions to survive it.
As a Christian I’m interested in what these sorts of films and other cultural products say about the fears of our society through the decades. Over the last three generations we have worried about fascism and communism and nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction. Today the weapons are still with us, and we fear that they will fall into the hands of religious radicals. We fear terrorism and drugs and pandemics and food shortages. We worry about financial collapse and the end of oil and we worry that we’ll have to give up our comfortable way of life. At the same time, we see signs of climate change, environmental collapse, dying oceans and vanishing species. Movies like 2012 exist, I think, because they feed off the tensions and fears that we carry within us as a society. But perhaps, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested this week, we need these fears because we don’t want our imperfect society to stumble along for ever. Rather, we need to imagine something bigger than ourselves which has the power to finish and judge us.

“Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility — as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.”

Now a sophisticated New York Times columnist won’t say it, even if he uses religious-sounding words like “judgment” and “sin” but as a priest speaking to you the faithful, I can say it. I can say that we as Christians have a story that begins with creation in the Book of Genesis and ends in Revelation with judgement. Even if we don’t read our bibles from cover to cover, we summarize this story every week in our creeds, including the statement that Christ “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” (BCP p. 71). Not only does the Christian story go from the beginning to the end of time, it is bigger than time itself, because we believe God as Alpha and Omega created time and lives outside of time. He was there before the cosmos was created and he will be there after it ends. As Christians we have a saviour, Jesus Christ, who is coeternal with God and because of his work done once and for all on the cross, as we heard in Hebrews this morning, we need not fear the end of our days or the day of judgement. The essential thing is that our names are written in the Book of Life. The rest is details. So what are we as Christians to do with this story?

I would say that we are called to spend the time we have standing with God against the work of evil in the world. We know that sin and evil are real. Christ warned his disciples that there would be wars and false messages and chaos in the world. The Book of Revelation speaks of the reality of sin and the devil, and we name this reality every time we witness a baptism in church. One of the great temptations of our time, in the pluralistic and tolerant west, is that we trivialize or downplay the existence of evil. An event like the Fort Hood shootings comes along and we look for sociological or psychological reasons, while not fully admitting that this was an evil act. When I speak to young soldiers preparing to deploy, I tell them that they need to understand that good is real, and so is evil. They will see evil things overseas. They’ve seen it, whether in the poverty of Haiti or the killing of Rwanda and Bosnia or the violence and fanaticism of Afghanistan. We see the reality of evil in every act of terrorism abroad and social injustice at home, where the needs of banks and shareholders seem to take precedence over the needs of the legions of poor and unemployed. We see the reality of evil in the steady exhaustion and abuse of God’s world. We are called to fight evil, fear and chaos with the light and love of the gospel for as long as we are given on earth, but we are also called to remember that we are mortal. Our time will end. Our lives will end. Our world will end. We need not be afraid of these things, for scripture promises us that evil, darkness and death will be defeated (Rev 21-22).

All through scripture, one of the great refrains, one of its main drifts as the Anglican divine Richard Hooker called them, is the call of reassurance “Be not afraid”. Adam and Eve hide in the garden, ashamed of their nakedness and of their disobedience, and God calls them back into relationship with him. The angels tell the shepherds to “fear not” when “mighty dread had seized their troubled minds”. The disciples are “startled and terrified” to see the risen Christ, and Jesus says “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:37). When John sees “the one like the Son of Man” in Revelation he falls to the ground “as though dead” but he is raised up and told “Do not be afraid” (Rev 1:17). Again and again in scripture, God’s hand is extended, raising us up out of fear and darkness and death, drawing us into the light and love and light of his presence. The root of all our sin is found when we ignore that outstretched hand and try to cling to our old lives, hoping for a little more time, a little more security, a little more comfort. There are many ways the world can seem to end. An IED can explode in Afghanistan. A job can vanish. A marriage can end. A diagnosis can be delivered. We can be wiped out on the highway. Darkness and death may seem to surround us. In the midst of these things, the Christian message as described in our second lesson remains as true as ever. Encourage one another. Fight for good. Be confident in the work of Christ, whose sacrifice made once and for all has set us free. This is the Christian story, and it is a never-ending story. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.”