Fearful Signs

Fearful Signs

Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Giles Hibbert preaches on the words of Jesus: Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes, plagues and famines. There will be fearful signs in the heavens.

If Jesus had thought of terrorists — and there were many around at this time, Barabbas, for example — he would have got it just about perfect. It is not surprising that many a fundamentalist thinks he was referring to us here and now, and that we should expect a cataclysmic Day of Judgement, if not this Christmas then certainly soon.

But the trouble is that many of these symptoms have occurred again and again since those words were spoken, and modern scholars think that some of these sayings of Jesus may reflect back to the Maccabean wars when Judah was fighting for survival as a nation, and from being sucked under, and into, Hellenistic culture.

Again others think that the authors of the Gospels are reading back into the preaching of Jesus the events that occurred in AD 70 when the Romans captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and reduced Israel. It cannot be concluded then that these words specifically predict an end of the world as we know it. But if not, what aspect of the Gospel is being presented in them?

To answer this we must go back a paragraph, and also as much as a thousand years — to the Temple built by Solomon. This passage starts with

They were walking in the Temple and admiring its stonework

which was indeed quite formidable, as also its decorations. This was Herod’s temple, successor to the second Temple, that of Ezra and Nehemiah, built after the return of Judah from captivity in Babylon.

The Temple meant a very great deal to the Jews and to their ancestors; and it still does today as they bewail its loss at the foot of its foundation walls. Without it they are bereft of the sacrifices made to God. But in Babylon they had to learn to do without it, and this was the cause of an enormous leap forward in their spirituality, as seen in the second part of Isaiah.

But the temple went hand in hand with their other great cherished gift: the Law; though that, too, was to be relocated — to be written not on stone but in their hearts. They were told also by the Lord that he would ‘take from them a heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh’.

In their Temple worship – and the similar worship that went on at Shechem in the northern part of the divided kingdom where Amos burst in proclaiming that the Day of the Lord would be a Day of Darkness, not of Light – their liturgy focussed on this. They were proud of their meticulous observance of the rubrics and their rigid dedication to the Law.

Amos’s message was that they had destroyed the Covenant, upon which these ideas were based, through their neglect of the poor, the landless, the ‘anawim, and that the Lord’s coming would bring judgement and destruction, not the fulfilment of the Kingdom which they were expecting.

These ideas were associated not only with those earlier Temples, but with that which Jesus and his disciples were admiring. Here too we hear much about the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple to which Jesus, after saying he would not go, goes up. The theme of the coming Day of the Lord is both there in the ritual, and, transferred and transformed to the expectation surrounding Jesus himself.

Alongside this we must put that other passage from the Fourth Gospel when Jesus says to the woman at the well of Samaria:

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem [i.e. the Temple] will you worship the Father… The hour has now come when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth… God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit an truth.

The pressure of the times proclaim the need to be faithful to the spirit of God’s Covenant with human kind. We require a heart of flesh and a law written right there. This, surely, is the Gospel of the Lord — the true Day of Judgment.

Readings: Mal 4:1-2 | 2 Thess 3:7-12 | Luke 21:5-19

fr. Giles Hibbert was a member of the community at Blackfriars, Cambridge. May he rest in peace.