November 15 2015

25th Sunday after Pentecost

‘THE FOUNDATION OF OUR HOPE’

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 16
Mark 13:1-8

REFLECTION

(Photos of different church buildings in Europe are shown on the monitors.)

As majestic as these buildings are only a few are still used as a place of worship today. Most have become museums, a relic of past life. These churches were made to imitate the glory of heaven, but the Kingdom of God is not made out of stones like these churches. Indeed the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is not tied to any structure that humans make.

The temple that Jesus and his disciples saw in ancient Jerusalem was also a magnificent building. It was built by Herod the Great in 20 BC and was an enlargement of the old temple that was built by the people who returned from their exile in Babylon. It took tens of years to finish and was still under construction in Jesus’ time. Indeed it was the only human-made structure that dominated the landscape of Jerusalem at that time.

But buildings rise and fall; kingdoms/nations come and go; and only 'fools' who would put their entire hope on human made structures like these. The disciples were amazed by the grandeur of Herod’s temple, which also was the very heart of Jewish spiritual, social, and even political life. But Jesus reminded them that the magnificent building would not last forever. Indeed in 70 CE it was completely destroyed by the Roman army.

That’s why Jesus reminded his disciples to never put their entire hope on a human-made structure whether it was a building, like the temple, or the social/economic/ political structure that it represented.

I had a friend, a university student studying social science, who once claimed that democracy was the Kingdom of God. He originally came from Afghanistan and was adopted by an Australian couple who taught English there. He had experienced war first hand, resulting in nightmares that haunt him constantly at nights. Being a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, he was often persecuted in his own birth land. He and his brother converted to Christianity from Islam, but his brother was killed by a bomb blast in a church in Pakistan, resulting in his family disowning him. It is no wonder that for him a peaceful and prosperous first-world democracy like Australia is the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

But Australia is NOT the Kingdom of Heaven; democracy is NOT the Kingdom of Heaven. Our nation has done wrong things in the past and democracy has flaws as a system. It may be the best political system that we know that can protect individual freedom and rights, but it is not a perfect system. The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is not the same with any structure that humans make.

The Kingdom of God is not defined by the events that occur in the world either. People may continue to wage wars against each other. Tragedy will always happen to someone somewhere in the world. Pain and crying will never leave us. Yet these are not signs that the Kingdom of God is just an illusion or, even worse, that God is an evil God.

British actor Stephen Fry, a well known atheist, was once asked, “Suppose God is real and you die and you meet Him at the Pearly Gate, what would you say to God?”

Stephen Fry answered (and this is my paraphrase of his words), “I would say, ‘How dare you! How dare you creating a world where there is so much suffering that is not our fault! Bone cancer in children? Insect whose whole purpose in life is to dig through children’s eyes from inside out?  What are they all about? They are utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded God like you?”

In a way I can understand why he reacted that way, but Stephen Fry is not the only person who gets frustrated by the state of the world. In the Bible there are many people who also complained to God about their situation. There are many prayers in the book of Psalms that are basically words of complain to God. In the book of Job God even found Job as righteous even though he dared to ‘sue’ God for his terrible condition!

Therefore many people of faith have complained to God as well, but they never lose their faith. The world may be far from the image of a paradise that we dream of, but it is not a reason to dismiss our faith. Bad thing still happens everywhere, but that does not mean that God is no longer interested in the world. On the contrary our reading today dares to proclaim that these are ‘signs’ that the Kingdom of God is near. These are like the pain of childbirth that heralds the coming of a new life.

Now we are not to dismiss pain and suffering that people experience in the world today. Those pains and sufferings are real, but they shall not be the last words that define the world where we live. The world still belongs to God and in the end God’s goodness will prevail. This is a bold claim, but only a bold claim like this that can challenge the desperation that plagues our world.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is not tied to a single person as well. Indeed we are not to put all our hope on any individual. Political leaders often make grandiose promises that they would fix the society’s ills if only they are elected. But all politicians of every stripe disappoint.

Unfortunately throughout history many nations had fallen into the trap of making one individual an idol. They blindly follow this person who claims to be the kind of ‘messiah’ who will solve all of their problems. This must be one reason why Jesus warned his disciples to be careful when people claimed, “I’m he!” But following such person will only lead us to disaster. We need only to remember what happened when Germany fell into Adolf Hitler’s charm or today in North Korea where Kim’s family is revered as semi-gods.

But the arrival of the Kingdom of God does not depend on any political, social, economic, or religious leader. The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is above and beyond any leader however charismatic that leader is.

So we Christians are indeed ‘fools in the world’s eyes. We are ‘fools’ because we are called to never to put our entire hope on something/someone that we can see, but on God whom we cannot see. The Apostle Paul once said, “If we see what we hope for, then it is not really hope ... But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]

We are to be like the author of Psalm 16 who refused to worship or follow other gods (v. 4). For him God was all that he had; God would give him all that he needed, and he trusted his future in God (v. 5). The words of this psalm are not far from the lyrics of the song Draw Me Close that the band sang during the offering today:

You’re all I want; you’re all I've ever needed;
you’re all I want; help me know you are near.”

Friends it doesn’t mean that we all must now go and separate ourselves from the rest of the world, just like what many religious sects often do. No, we are to be in the world, but not of the world.[2] We are to be the salt and the light of the world that influence the world by being in it.[3] But as we are involved in the world’s affair, we need to always remind ourselves that no one and nothing shall replace God or be what God is for us. Our final allegiance and hope will always rest on God only.

Amen.

[1] Romans 8:24-25 NRSV

[2] See John 17:9-19

[3] Matthew 5:13-16