Vicar's Sermon - 15th November 2015
Daniel 12.1-3 Mark 13.1-8
The other night Kim and I sat ourselves down in front of the fire and watched the film ‘The Imitation Game’. You may have seen it or know about it. The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing, the Cambridge Mathematics professor who is credited now with being the inventor of the machine – the computer- that cracked the Nazi Enigma code during the Second World War. Turing realised that, with the key to the code changing at mid night every day, it would be impossible (even with a huge number of cryptographers working on the task) to cover the millions of possibilities that would eventually lead the code being unlocked. To help with the task he created Christopher, a great lump of a machine full of whirring cogs and yards of wires to speed up the process. ‘Christopher’ – the name of a young man Turing had a crush on when he was at school (Alan Turing was prosecuted for being gay and committed suicide as a result). ‘Christopher’ a name that translated means ‘Christ bearer.’ The machine cost over £100,000 and Turing was very nearly dismissed from the project because, with the war raging around them, the code breakers were making no progress but then, when all seemed lost one ‘light bulb’ moment helped the cryptographers to make the breakthrough they needed. In the film, the breakthrough was the realisation that just about every message ended with the words ‘Heil Hitler’ – those words were enough to give Christopher an entry point into the code that brought about its destruction.
Who is to say what would have happened if Alan Turing had been thrown out of Bletchley Park for wasting MOD money on his machine. By all accounts his single-mindedness, combined with behaviour we would now place well along the autistic spectrum made him a particularly difficult colleague. But the point is this...he persevered, he did not give up and when he met with obstacles to the work he had been set to perform he found ways to overcome them. After the war pretty well all of his work was destroyed: it had been Top Secret and no-one was to know about it. He died (as I have said) in tragic circumstances. Only in recent years has he been granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen for the crime of ‘homosexuality’ and his absolutely crucial role in the war effort recognised more than 50 years after his death.
The events of Friday night in Paris come as a body blow to all those who long for people to be able to live alongside one another, respecting one another’s common humanity, celebrating our wonderful diversity and the richness of the many religious and cultural differences amongst us. The fact that the actions of the terrorists in France were carried out in the name of religion (I hesitate to say in the name of Islam) comes as a particular challenge to people of faith. Week in, week out, people of all faiths (not just our own) pray for peace and work for justice. Day in, day out we educate our children in ways of tolerance and respect. We seek to build up our communities and to be a blessing to them by serving the needs of our neighbours. People of faith are more likely than other members of society to give to charity or to volunteer their time and energy for community work – running youth clubs and soup kitchens; organising crèches and pre-schools; taking a lead in the Scouts and the Guiding organisations; offering a listening ear to those who are troubled.
All this takes place and then we are thrown into confusion and wonder ‘what on earth is the point?’ There are wars and rumours of wars, extreme and horrible violence, upheaval across swathes of the middle east, refugees in camps throughout Eastern Europe, bodies washed up on the Mediterranean coast, corruption in sport, dreadful disparities of wealth between and within nations, brutal crimes brought before our courts....the list could go on and on. What is the point? What should be ur attitude as people of faith? Where is the good God we proclaim?
Too often, when people have read the words we heard this morning from the scriptures – words from Daniel’s prophecy, and apocalyptic words spoken by Jesus – they have read them as a sort of ‘preview’ of what the end of the world will look like and then tried to match current events to the prophecies. There are some pretty frightening versions of Christian expression that do this- that populate the internet with doom and gloom, that look forward with gruesome excitement to the end days, that take an unhealthy delight in the prospect of Armageddon wiping out ‘the bad guys’ of the world.
But the passages as we have them aren’t a detailed timetable of the end times, rather, they re a simple encouragement to stand firm, to hold on, to persevere. It is by no means clear that those of us who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, who try to live by the sermon on the mount are on the right track. As I said last week at the Remembrance Sunday service: Where does hungering and thirsting for righteousness get us in the face of terror? What might it mean for us to live humbly before our neighbours? How is it at all possible to bless those who persecute us? How can we make peace with those who seek to provoke war: doesn’t peacemaking involve two parties coming together? And, in the face of the extreme violence of the last few days do we (the church) have the courage to even attempt to hold before our nation another Way? Today’s papers will show us whether we, as a society, can be measured in our response to the attacks in France? I took encouragement from the contrast between our newspapers who rejoiced in the death of Jihadi John and the relatives of those he had beheaded who were saddened that he had not been brought to justice.
Daniel’s prophecy, albeit set in the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, was written at a time when Israel had been conquered by yet another invading force. He wrote at a time of ‘anguish’. We should not imagine that our travails are any worse than his...or of those who have held the faith down through the horrors of history. Daniel knew that people had died – he speaks of those who sleep in the dust of the earth- hope was in short supply. Questions were many: What is the point of faith? His answer was an encouragement to stay true, to stay strong, to trust God’s good purposes. There is no promise that God’s people will escape the time of trial but even those who have died will one day ‘shine like the stars’. Our task, according to our first reading is to be wise – which for Daniel means acknowledging the Lordship of the Almighty and being faithful in worship - and to be righteous (against the odds, seeking always to do the right thing before God and our neighbour).
Jesus can see a time when everything that the disciples had put their trust in might collapse around them: the great symbol of the Jewish nation, the temple, gone. He can foresee a crisis of leadership, future violence and warfare but he too encourages his followers to hold true to His way: this, he says is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
The kingdom of God will come to birth. It may seem to us as if it is to be still born but it is our task, as God’s co-workers to ensure that does not happen. There are men and women whose lives are filled with hatred and violence. There is much that is evil in the world. There is corruption and cruelty. There is famine and disease. At times the values of our society seem to shift in an ever downward direction . What are we, as God’s people to do?
Pray as Jesus would pray: hold the world that God loves before Him and open it to His embrace. Trust: trust that God will never give up on His world. That His love, the love that showed itself on the cross of Christ and that reached through Jesus’ death to bring Him to resurrection can reach down into the depths of our world and bring life and light and hope and transformation. And work: we are God’s people – salt and light in the world. How we live matters. When we are tempted to ask ‘what the hell is happening around us’ we might also ask ‘What in heaven’s name can I do to bring Christ to this place?’
May Christ grant us grace and wisdom to persevere in following His way, and may that grace and wisdom guide and direct all those who will frame our response to the terror of recent days.