Monday, November 19, 2012

The Abomination of Desolation


      S. Mark 13:14-23

Imagine for a moment that your world was turned upside down. Something occurred in your home town that was so catastrophic that you had only option and that was to leave. And in your departure, there was no time for packing or for good byes: you simply had to make an exit. In leaving, there would be many places hard to say goodbye to: your home, the place where perhaps you raised your children, your place of employment, and of course, your place of worship. The horror and sorrow of this scenario is only a fragment of that which our Lord foretells for the city of Jerusalem in today's Gospel lesson. The lesson begins with this mysterious reference to the 'abomination of desolation.' The phrase is an allusion to a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a figure who desecrates the temple of Jerusalem and sets himself up as god. Precisely this thing happened in 168 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes, a Gentile king, entered into the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, set up an altar to Zeus, and sacrificed swine flesh. In the temple, only priests were permitted in the sacred precincts, only the Lord was to be worshiped and only clean animals were to be sacrificed. This was the utmost blasphemy and sacrilege. A similar series of events unfolded in the late 60s of the first century, a few decades after the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. A popular political movement—the Zealots—rebelled against Roman rule. In response, the Romans brought the full force of their military might against Judea led by the future Ceasar Titus. Jerusalem was one of the final strongholds in the war, and in 70 A.D. Titus began a siege of that city. Famine and hunger soon reigned. The Romans allowed pilgrims into the city for major feasts like Passover, only to forbid them to leave afterwards to put further strain on food and water supplies. Those who abandoned the city were crucified in mass around the city walls. Finally in September of that year, the walls were breached, and Titus ordered his soldiers to destroy the city and temple. Contemporary accounts estimate that 1.1 million people died in the siege and that 100,000 were sold into slavery after the conquest. As with other military conquests in the ancient world, a defeat was interpreted to be a defeat of the losing sides' god. For the Romans, their religion, including of course Caesar worship, was vindicated. Most scholars believe that Jesus is predicting this downfall of Jerusalem in the passage before us. Reading the Jewish historian Josephus on these events makes one appreciate the strong statement of our Lord: “For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.”

So why, you might ask, is this relevant? Our Lord's forecast of the attack on Judea and the siege of Jerusalem puts before us a pattern of life in this world. First of all, there are many institutions, social movements and people who set themselves up in opposition to God as gods demanding absolute obedience and obeisance. In this sense they are an abomination of desolation.  In their own ways, in the twentieth century both fascism and communism made these types of demands on people under whom their political power fell. There is a second important point here though: in times of chaos—whether political, religious or personal—the possibility of false messiahs is at its greatest, and the temptation to follow them is even greater.  According to our Lord, the advent of the abomination of desolation becomes the occasion for “false Christs and false prophets [to a]rise, and [to] shew signs and wonders, [in order to] seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.” This remains as true in our own day, as it was in the first century. Chaos provides an occasion for us to put our trust in people, institutions and social movements as the panaceas to our woes. No doubt, a good number were disappointed by the results of the latest election cycle. Whatever our reaction to the outcome of the election—if we are either disproportionately elated or devastated, it might an indication that we have put our trust in men to save our society. In the same way, some will greet the announcement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby who purportedly has substantial skills in reconciliation, as the next great hope for healing the fissures of the Anglican Communion. Unquestionably we should hope, but where is our hope directed? If its ultimate object is God himself, then we are on solid ground, but so often, our hope is directed at everything but God. These remarkable words come from the recessional hymn to be sung this morning: “Mortal pride and earthly glory, Sword and crown betray our trust; / Though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.”

Trial and chaos in particular can tempt us to put our trust in temples and towers and in false messiahs. But with every trial, temptation and chaos we face in life there is always a corresponding and greater grace offered by God. The grace of trial and chaos is an invitation to greater trust in God. Rejecting faith in false messiahs, we can place hope and simple trust in the Lord of history, our Lord Jesus. It is the type of trust that the Psalmist describes with these moving words: “LORD, I am not high-minded; * I have no proud looks. / I do not exercise myself in great matters * which are too high for me. / But I refrain my soul, and keep it low, like as a child that is weaned from his mother: * yea, my soul is even as a weaned child.” This does not mean that we should be na├»ve or simplistic in our faith, but that we should trust in the Lord in everything, and in the midst of chaos, resist putting our trust in that which is not god, those endless and empty false messiahs.

I want to give you three examples of how this simple trust can be exercised. First, this simple trust is evident every time a child is baptized. We cannot of course see into the future of this child. We are not able to discern where or when this child will begin to live this faith as her own, although we know that such a moment must come; the fullness of baptism would be left unexpressed if this faith did not become that of the child. But we also cannot begin to see the ways in which the grace she receives today will be unfolded in her later life. This grace may remain hidden for years even as it operates in her life to keep her from the follies and sins of blind youth. Despite our ignorance about this future, in simple trust, faith and obedience, the child's parents and godparents and the church as a whole bring this child to be blessed and touched by the Lord. I like to think of baptism as a simple thank-you for what our Lord has already done for this child. His atonement for the sins of the whole world encompasses, embraces and removes even the sins—original and actual—of this child. What better image can be found for the Scriptural assertion that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”, than infant baptism, where it is not about what we bring to God—even a willful declaration to follow Jesus—but about what he has already done for us.

Today is pledge Sunday when we offer our pledges of good faith to God and to this church. A pledge and offering rightly made is another example of this simple trust and obedience. In Fr. Petley's sermon last Sunday, he spoke of how the widow gave freely to God without being hindered by the hypocrisy of the temple and clergy and without fretting about the institutional insanity that so-often characterizes the earthly church. It would be easy to be consumed and distracted by peripheral issues like these. It would also be easy to give a portion of what we have, and act as if the rest were ours to spend as we like. We often do this with time: here is the portion for God, here's one for my family, and now this one—always the biggest one—is mine. But the widow gives every thing to God, even her very living. The surrender we are called to “demands my soul, my life, my all.” The offering of our pledges today is an opportunity to turn away from trust in ourselves and trust in everything in this world that is exalted as god, to reject every false messiah, and to put our small faith and trust in God, to surrender once again to the Lord in love.

There is a further opportunity for surrender in making a faithful reception of Holy Communion. Recollect that the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God, the mother of God. The eternal Word takes flesh from this human mother, joining in himself finite human nature and infinite god-head. Did Mary make a selfish accounting of the situation, reckoning for example how she would be perceived for being an unwed mother? In this trial and stress, did she decide to trust in herself and false messiahs? No, her answer is one of simple trust and obedience; her response is one of complete surrender: behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word. In Holy Communion, we are invited to receive the Lord Jesus into our bodies and souls in imitation of Mary receiving the Lord. Will he find in us a dwelling like that of our Lady? A place where the response to the divine commission  is “be it done unto me according to thy word.” In the chaos and trials that you are facing in your life, will you set aside every trust in that which cannot save so that you can be open to the love and grace of God?