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Sermon: Sermon preached at St John’s Milford, 15th November 2015

Sunday 15th November 2015
St John's Milford
Parish Eucharist
Daniel 12.1-3
Hebrews 10.11-14, 19-25
Mark 13.1-8

Sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist, St John’s Milford, Second Sunday before Advent, 15th November 2015.

I expect you know the old thing you can do with your hands about the Church: ‘here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and here are the people’.

Most of us are now pretty well trained to know that the Church is more than the bricks and mortar, that when we speak of the Church we’re talking about the Body of Christ, of which we are members: limbs and organs.

But our gospel reading has just taken us to a building complex, the Temple buildings of Jerusalem and the response of the disciples is, ‘What large stones and what large buildings!’ (Mark 13.2).

When people come to Guildford, or at least to the Cathedral they tend to say, ‘What a lot of bricks!’ And they probably say some other things besides! I wonder what they say of St John’s, Milford: almost certainly, I would imagine, there is deep love and affection for this building, as a place where people have encountered the living God through the generations, been married, baptised and buried here.

But back to Jerusalem. As Jesus sits down with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, the hill opposite the Temple, he muses with the disciples that there will be all sorts of signals of war, terror and fear, of natural disaster and famines. It sounds all too familiar in our own day.

Whilst the stones of the Temple were pulled down in AD70 by the Romans, this is not just about 2,000 years ago. Jesus is reading us, not just his first disciples.

What Jesus is talking about is more than buildings. Those stones and walls can represent the certainties, securities and conventional wisdom of our age, of institutions and individuals. And when edifices crumble it is terrifying. Slow decay and dereliction over a long period is bad enough, but recall the shocking scenes of the earthquake in Nepal to see just how chilling collapsing buildings are.

Thinking about the buildings, it all sounds really quite unsettling. One day will Guildford Cathedral, St John’s, Milford, even Westminster Abbey, be like Stonehenge or the remaining Western Wall of the Jerusalem temple?

And if, or rather, when our buildings crumble what has been lost? What has been gained? Will the Gospel still be proclaimed; will the church prove to have been the Body of Christ, in Christ’s people, and not just about buildings?

We are at a time when long held assumptions and verities are crumbling in politics, religion and the way human beings interact. The Church has been here before: the persecutions of the early centuries; the collapse of Rome and barbarian invasions; the Fall of Constantinople to Islam; the Reformation; abuse scandals. And there is more. History is littered with ‘paradigm shifts’ and collapsing civilisations and certainties. Yet through all that the Church has continued to be faithful in worship, proclamation of the gospel and Christian living that says the buildings and edifices are secondary to living out the way of Jesus Christ.

What’s true of institutions is true of individuals too. We take security in our own certainties, our own vanities, or the stories we tell about ourselves to look nice, kind or plausible. And we don’t want that to collapse. We would rather be, in Jesus haunting phrase, ‘white washed tombs’ (Matthew 23.27), looking great on the outside but inside housing death and emptiness. We don’t want our public face or reputation ever to crumble, for we worry about what is left.

And this is where the notion that God searches us out and knows us, better than we ourselves is also frightening: I can’t hide the truth about myself from God, like Adam and Eve tried. But this is actually Good News. God in Christ searches us out because he loves us, he is our judge, not other people, and he ‘examines us in love’.

Shortly after Jesus’ words about the temple crumbing he went in and effectively said, ‘bring it on!’ He went in and turned over tables and cast out money changers: ‘my Father’s house is to be a house of prayer’.

His ‘house’ now is my body and your body, temples of the Holy Spirit. Bodies that one day will die and decay, yet have housed the Holy Spirit, been searched out by Christ and directed to the Father, mortal, crumbling bodies that will be transformed, as St Paul puts it, into new and glorious bodies.

And our hope lies in the understanding - that it took the disciples a while to come to - that the destruction of the temple was not just about buildings but about that Jesus’s own body: a body that would be broken and dead, yet that would be raised again in three days (John 2.21, 22). Death and destruction is shot through with resurrection hope.

Everyone today looks at a world battered and bruised by war and terror, environmental threat and enduring mass poverty and exploitation. Christians look at all that and yet do not despair. Not because we’re naïve and unworldly, but because deep within our corporate memory we know that the world has been here before and that, whilst human certainties crumble, God’s love and God’s faithfulness does not. Even through death.

This is why Jesus can call all this ‘birth pangs’: the writhing pain of birthing a new creation. So resurrection hope fills the bewilderment and despair of our gospel, our ‘Good News’ passage today.

And what keeps us faithful to this hope, and has kept Christians throughout the ages faithful, is that at each and every celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, we are taken to the end of the week that began with Jesus gazing with his disciples at those buildings. As that week, that we call Holy Week, drew to a close he had supper with his disciples, on the very night that he was betrayed. That night he was betrayed and stripped of comfort in the Garden, and all he had left was his trust in God, his Father and ours. That week ended with the temple of his body broken and blood poured out; all was desolate. Yet a golden thread of trust and attention to God runs through it all.

These were the birth pangs of a promised new age, the Kingdom of God, not just a far off vision but the reign of God inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That all takes us back to ‘here’s the church, here’s the steeple’… if the building crumbles the Church is left, with hands outstretched in trust, attention and hope to receive the broken yet glorious Body of Christ. As St Peter’s writes, ‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2.4, 5).