Sunday 13th November 2016, Remembrance Sunday, morning

Luke 21:5-19

by Revd Chris Palmer

The main thing I want to say today is that God provides our only stability in life. If we trust in other things or people to give us that stability, we find ourselves disappointed. God’s stability is expressed in the bible in the story of him making a covenant – his promise – with his people. It’s there in the repeated theme of his faithfulness. It is expressed in images in the psalm and elsewhere, ‘The Lord is my rock’, ‘The Lord is my shepherd… even though I walk through the darkest valley, you are there with me…’, ‘He is my fortress’, and so on.

The problem is that God’s stability doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s not the assurance that we’ll never face conflict, illness, or poverty. It is the assurance only that God loves us with an unending love, which endures even when all around us falls apart.

Today’s Gospel reading doesn’t at first glance feel like ‘gospel’ – like ‘good news’. ‘They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors… you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…’ And then we say, ‘This is the good news of the Lord’!

For many of the first generation Christians persecution and hatred were a reality. The words of Jesus found their fulfilment particularly in the Jewish insurrection and war of the late 60s AD. In the end, the Romans came and retook Jerusalem brutally, destroyed its temple, and further subjugated its people in AD 70. Christians were often lumped in with (other) Jews when viewed by the Roman authorities, but rejected by the synagogue communities – so finding no home or security anywhere.

For many Christians today persecution continues to be a reality. And not only Christians – hatred of people because of their ethnicity, religion, or politics feels greater than ever. We live in a world of distrust, prejudice, and suspicion. And a presidential election in the leading nation of the free world has just been fought and won by stirring up these attitudes.

And in this context Jesus gives his followers three commandments, three ‘thou shalt not’s in today’s reading. They are rather embedded in a way that doesn’t immediately stand out, but let’s take a moment to pull them out.

First, ‘do not be led astray’. The key thing here is that Jesus tells us not to throw your trust behind human leaders who offer certainty, but will turn out to have no moral fibre themselves. And even if they have moral fibre, they are powerless to deliver the good they want, because they are subject to the same limitations as the rest of us. It’s often said that the only true leaders in the church are those who are first of all followers – who are disciples of Jesus with others – not those who implicitly ask others to follow them. We are led astray by deceptive voices because of our attachments – these subtle addictions that we are only dimly aware of, because they have been so normalised by society. They might include seeking reputation (wanting to be admired or praised), comfort, freedom, or happiness. Of course these are good things in themselves – we wouldn’t choose anything else – but when they become idols that we give our all to, we cease to worship God.

Then second Jesus says, ‘do not be terrified’.  The commandment in the bible ‘do not be afraid’ is the most common command. But the word here is different. Jesus is saying ‘don’t be struck with panic.’ This goes beyond just being afraid; it has the added suggestion of becoming irrational and unable to function. I think that Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane is a lovely illustration of him keeping his own instruction. He is open and able to express his desire and fear; he pours out his heart to God, with many tears: ‘Take this cup of suffering from me’. But he doesn’t allow his feelings however strong to lead him into panic or away from the call of God. ‘Yet not my will, but yours be done’. He is true to his vocation without being terrorised into seeking escape.

Then third, Jesus says, when you get to court ‘do not prepare your defence beforehand’. At first it sounds like he’s talking to those of us who prepare sermons, or maybe those who prepare for presidential television debates, and telling us to wing it! But I don’t think that’s the point at all. Jesus rather is saying, don’t have a defensive attitude or trust in clever defensive strategies or arguments. It will be your honesty and integrity, nurtured and formed by the Spirit, that shines through. So those who speak in Christ’s name probably won’t be polished, or eloquent, or necessarily even effective in a courtroom loaded against them. But in the end the insincerity and dishonesty of unjust oppressions contains the seeds of its own undoing, and the truth of those who put their whole trust in God cannot ultimately die.

The difference between putting our whole trust in God and trusting in other things is the difference between true and false religion. I’ve sometimes quoted from a Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, but this bears repeating:

All religion... is concerned to overcome fear.  We can distinguish real religion from unreal by contrasting their formulae for dealing with negative motivation.  The maxim of illusory religion runs: “Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you”; that of real religion, on the contrary, is “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.” [1]

Authentic Christian faith doesn’t promise us safety in worldly terms – doesn’t guarantee that our country won’t become embroiled in war, as has happened to people in Syria. But it does promise that God stays faithful, even when everything else is shifting.

Remembrance Sunday is always a fine balancing act – remembering with gratitude and honour those who gave their lives for freedom, whilst not giving dignity to the use of violence to solve problems. But it is possible and necessary to keep this balance. The fallen of past wars died precisely so that capricious and unpredictable violence would not be the norm for their descendants. We need to remember not because they need us to – they are in God’s presence beyond fear and insecurity – but because we need to stay mindful of the cost of our freedom, so as not to despise or squander or take it for granted.

But we are also called not to put all our trust in it. Liberal democracy and freedom are good things worth struggling for, but we must not idolise them or place all our trust in them. To say, ‘I believe and trust in God’ means that we don’t trust in any other [2]. None other than God can be the ground of our being; his faithfulness and love are the only sure foundation, and it is in him alone that we place our trust today.


[1] See here

[2] See Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God, p21:

"The point needs to more strongly made: believing in God entails not 'believing in'... anything else. We educated Westerners are... so little tempted by beliefs and practices which we would deem to be idolatrous that we find it hard to notice the firmness of grip in which we are held by the dominant idolatries of our culture."