A SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT
Revd Joy Margerison
READINGS: Malachi ch.4 vv.1-2 and St Luke ch.21 vv.5-19
The final verse of our Gospel reading is, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The equivalent verse in Matthew’s Gospel reads, “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.” This, I think, is more familiar, so this is our text: “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”
Felix Mendelssohn’s great Oratorio, “Elijah,” traces the life of the prophet in the Old Testament, during his confrontation with King Ahab of Israel and his wife, Jezebel. Using the narrative in the 1st Book of Kings, the Oratorio is dramatic – almost at times operatic – in its intensity as it describes the desperation of the people enduring a famine and a drought, and losing their trust in God. Meanwhile, Elijah is locked in conflict with Ahab and Jezebel to prove that the God of Israel is more powerful than the pagan god, Baal. You will know the story, especially the moment when Elijah, fleeing for his life and sheltering in a cave, feels the presence of God with him in “the still small voice.” As the Oratorio moves towards its finale, we hear the chorus, “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.” Mendelssohn was not averse to using the words of Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel to reflect on the prophet who survived all kinds of challenges, even death threats, to emerge with his faith in God undimmed. He had had his moments of doubt – in his darkest time he cried out, “It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (If you’re familiar with the Oratorio, these words are sung poignantly by the bass soloist.) But Elijah had won through. “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”
The text takes us from the Old Testament back to the New and our Gospel reading. It is a terrifying picture painted there by Jesus, as he describes the future of his people – for this is a very Jewish passage of Scripture in which Jesus prophesies the fall of Jerusalem. This did happen when, in AD70, the city was besieged by the Romans and thousands starved and died, while hundreds were taken prisoner and the city reduced to rubble. One commentator describes it this way: “In AD70 the Jewish nation was obliterated and the temple was burned and became a desolation.” (Barclay). Some historians will say that the nation has never recovered from that event. But we move on from this terror and read beyond our set lesson as Jesus describes a different time, when all will be restored, when the Son of Man will be King. Jesus says, “… as you see these things beginning to happen – look up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21 vs.28). Words of hope and encouragement. As I read St Luke’s narrative, I feel that we see Jesus speaking as one in the long line of Old Testament prophets who had gone before him. One of the characteristics of prophecy was its imagery and visionary language. Sometimes it seems exaggerated, even extreme. But all is used to make a point. There is no neutrality here. You are either for God or against God. For us, as Christians, we either accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, or reject Him.
Prophets give a vision of another reality. They see and speak of how things are and how they might become, be different. For example, in exile, Ezekiel gave the fantastic vision of the dry bones which were given new life. Jeremiah’s enacted prophecy led him to buy a field as an investment in the future. And remember Isaiah’s poetic language and the vivid words of Amos, against injustice and religious hypocrisy. All are devastating – yet all conclude somehow on a note of consolation, even hope, with the possibility of restoration and blessing. Yet such hope is dependent upon keeping faith with God and trust in God.
So then, I believe that these very hard sayings of Jesus in our Gospel reading are a realistic warning that people of faith, those who accept him as Lord and Saviour, through all time, will face challenges – and some will be hard to bear. But then our reading concludes with words of consolation, encouragement, even hope. To those who don’t give up under pressure, but hold on to faith and Christ, it will be life fulfilling, life enhancing. “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”
All of which leads me further on in the New Testament narrative to where we meet the apostle Paul. In the context of our text, we meet Paul as he stands on trial before King Agrippa, who gives the apostle permission to explain himself and his allegiance to Jesus. Paul describes his own early life and then gives a synopsis of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. He goes on to describe his dramatic vision and conversion on the Damascus Road and continues, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. It is for this reason that I stand before you now – my life in jeopardy.” (Acts ch.26). Later, Paul was to write to his young friend Timothy, “I have fought the fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy ch.4). Paul had indeed endured to the end.
The challenges to faith across the spectrum of religious traditions are all too real today. Our culture here is one in which religion is dismissed, even ridiculed. Those who do believe and follow a religious faith must hold the line against scepticism, atheism, materialism – and any other “isms” you care to think of! As Christians we must never lose sight of the fact that our faith is one of hope – hope of restoration, renewal, transformation. The death and resurrection of Jesus teach us so. Things can be different. If you see the Book of Revelation as a fantastical, out of this world prophecy, even so there are some wonderful visions there of hope and promise. The picture of a new heaven and a new earth centred on God – “for the former things have passed away and behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. ch.21). Mother Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic, expressed it this way, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
In spite of the sometimes devastating imagery and language we find in the Old Testament, and on into the New, reflecting on the human condition and human affairs, hope is never far away if we care to see it. The symbol of the rainbow promise (Genesis) never fades away completely.
Soon we will be in the season of Advent. It can be a sombre time, as John the Baptist is a prophet whose words are sombre too, as he urges repentance, repentance. But there is also great hope and promise in his message for – of course – he prophesies the coming of the Saviour whom we receive with joy; and celebrate with all our hearts. Next Sunday is the Sunday before Advent – the Feast of Christ the King. Edward Shillito wrote these words:
Away with gloom, away with doubt,
With all the folk of God we shout
the praises of our King we sing,
Alleluia, alleluia, the coming of our King.
In the confusing and sometimes frightening world in which we live, we press on, we persevere, going forward with Christ in faith, hope and promise. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “All that we rightly expect from God and pray for is found in Jesus Christ.” Sometimes during Communion we sing the words of a hymn by Fred Kaan. I close with the words of the final verse:
Then give us courage, Father God,
To choose again the pilgrim way;
And help us to accept with joy
The challenge of tomorrow’s day.