Tragedy and Meaning

Sermon Sunday 17 November 2019

Lessons Isaiah 65: 17 – 25 St Luke 21: 5 – 19

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

May the calm and peace, the shalom, of Your Spirit pervade our souls. May we be still and, through music, word and silence, sense Your Presence saturating all things. In the Name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

In the Book of Isaiah, from the lips of the prophet God says, ‘I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered…No more shall the sound of weeping be heard…..The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…’. From this picture of tranquillity and peacefulness, we turn to the terrible words of Jesus. Not a single stone of Jerusalem’s sacred temple will remain standing: stone upon stone will fall. Talking with His disciples in the temple precincts, Jesus told them that they will hear of wars, insurrection, famines, plagues and ‘great signs from the heavens’. Surrounded by His friends, people who believed and trusted in Him, Jesus said that they would be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives and friends. Not only would the temple be destroyed but, some of them, some of His closest friends, would be put to death.

Containing sixty-six books, thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament, the Bible is a rich tapestry of poetry, liturgy, spirituality and fragments of history. It is not straight history and needs always to be interpreted imaginatively, and with careful discernment. The lines from Isaiah of the wolf and the lamb feeding together and the lion on a diet of straw would be difficult to stomach if read literally – pun intended – but the narrative is poetic hyperbole. It is beautiful poetry, the poetry of hope, written in the aftermath of the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 587BCE.

When Solomon’s temple was destroyed, many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants were taken as prisoners into exile, to the city of Babylon. It is in Babylon that the psalmist asked, ‘How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?’ When, finally, the Jewish people were liberated from Babylon they returned to their homeland with immense hope in their hearts. In poetry, the prophet imagined new heavens and a new earth, no more weeping and peace, true peace, which would flourish: the wolf and lamb feeding together. If the very fabric of your society had been invaded, if your families had been devastated by the violence of a foreign power, how sweet it must have felt to see the dawn of a new light after many long years; to dream of a return to a spiritual home and the home of their ancestors. This is the poetry of Isaiah. Pervading each poetic line was the belief that God, the God of the Exodus, the God who journeyed with the people, would be with them in the newly built city.

By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, the second temple together with the entire city had been utterly destroyed; this time by the Romans. History records the terrible details of the siege of the city, the wholesale slaughter and the starvation of the city’s inhabitants. Again, the Jewish people, including Jewish Christians, sought meaning, security and hope in a desperate situation. In apocalyptic language, Jesus spoke of destruction upon destruction – earthquakes, famines, and great signs from heaven – even the death of His followers. What are we to make of this dramatic and disturbing language? How do we find God in such brutal events? Of course, it doesn’t have to be an earthquake, famine or a sign from heaven but most people over the course of their lifetime will face a time of particular hardship, darkness, or sadness and moments when they ask, ‘Where is God’?

Following the tsunami of 2004, a story from Sri Lanka appeared in the New York Times telling of a large man of enormous physical strength who had been unable to prevent four of his five children from perishing in the gigantic wave. The reporter said that as the man named the children he had lost, ending with the name of his four-year-old son, he was overwhelmed by weeping. One theologian wrote, ‘Only a moral cretin would at that moment say to the man that his children died as a result of God’s eternal purposes’. Rightly, the theologian went on, ‘If it was not appropriate at that moment, it is not appropriate at any moment!’

It is worth noticing that in Jewish history both the first and second temples were destroyed by powerful, invading forces; and God did not stop either event. Jesus spoke of earthquakes, famines and even great signs from heaven but, not only does God not stop these events, God is not in them. Like Elijah centuries earlier, with the earthquake, wind and fire, God was not in them. I am particularly struck by the inclusion of the phrase, ‘great signs from heaven’: God is not in them; they are not of God.

It can be very easy for us, all of us, to read God into a situation or blame God for a bad situation. Our understanding of God needs to be more sophisticated than that. The prophecy of Isaiah, of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, appears to be written predicting the release of the Jewish people from captivity and their return to the city. In fact, prophecy is typically written after the events have occurred: it is a means of interpreting what has taken place. It is a literary and poetic means of discerning the Presence of God in and through the experiences of life; it is a reflection on what has happened. Similarly with the prophecy of Jesus, though it appears on His lips in the temple precincts, the Gospel itself was written after the second temple had fallen and the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground. It may be that Jesus did foresee the invasion by Rome but in the Gospel of Luke we are reading the words of the Early Church re-interpreting the message of Jesus in their new, hopeless situation. If God’s purposes and intimate Presence are not to be found in turbulent weather or chaotic political events, then where?

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Not a hair on your head will perish’. For myself, in the midst of suffering and death, Jesus affirmed the Presence and overwhelming love of God but in a way that is subtle, fragile and delicate. God is always elusive, mysterious and hidden. God is a Presence that we may be aware of but is always beyond us. Here is a good quote for you from the Christian tradition: ‘God does not exist’. In other words, if by exist we mean something that is born, grows, changes, matures and dies, something of this material world, of this material existence, then God does not exist. Instead, God is ethereal, eternal; God is the Timeless in time. God is ‘something’ we are aware of. The English poet Wordsworth said he had experienced:
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and in the mind of man.

‘Not a hair on your head will perish’ such is the love of the Eternal for us but don’t look for God, for divine purpose and specific meaning, in the tragic events of life.

The Jesuit priest, Alfred Delp, was executed by the Nazis in 1945. During his final months in prison, he wrote many reflections and meditations. At no point did he escape the hopelessness of his situation. During his trial, the Church and Jesuits were slandered and the outcome a foregone conclusion. There was no escape for Father Delp. He asked, ‘What is God’s purpose in all of this?’ Amidst his degradation, trial and suffering, he found peace. He experienced inner resurrection. A few days before he died, Delp wrote:
When I compare my icy calm during the
court proceedings with the fear I felt, for
instance, during the bombing of Munich,
I realise how much I have changed. But
the question keeps coming back – was this
change the purpose of it all – or is this
inner exaltation and help the miracle I
asked for?

Delp spoke of inner exaltation and help. In the silence of the prison cell, in the soul which sentencing could not contain, Delp encountered the Eternal, the Ethereal. The outward circumstances had not changed but his awareness of the Presence, of the Sacred, changed everything. Though he was executed, Father Delp knew he would not perish. In the midst of crisis, Jesus spoke of the One so close, within us, the One who would not let a single hair perish.