When Things Fall Apart
Sermon for 18 November 2018 – Second Sunday before Advent
St John the Baptist Felixstowe
Text: ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13.8)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers
Tomorrow evening, God and SNCF willing, Lesley-Anne and I will be in Marseilles beginning a weeklong holiday consisting of, I hope, far too much good living.
As a penance we will be obliged to visit some of the local Places of Interest to take photos of plates of food, architectural extravagance, and more than a few selfies to be shared on Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps even Instagram. For this I will be making absolutely no apology. After all, what’s the use of going away if you can’t send home the cyber-equivalent of a saucy postcard with the legendary words, ‘Weather here, wish you were lovely’ inscribed upon it?
In Marseilles itself we will be ascending the kilometre long steep climb (we may take the land train!) to the highest point of the city to visit the Byzantine style Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. From where we will enjoy stunning views across the city and out to sea to the almost mythical island whereon sits the Château d’if.
Having been there once before I know what to expect but I wonder how Lesley-Anne will feel about its monolithic grandeur? I suspect her feelings may be similar to mine when I first visited there, which were similar to the feelings of the disciples in today’s Gospel. Who, on what seems to have been the first visit of the uneducated fisherfolk to Jerusalem, were overawed by the magnificence that was Herod’s temple.
“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I hope that this tendency for things made with hands, no matter how magnificent, to ‘fall apart’ is not acted out while we are standing next week on top of a different sort of Temple Mount!
If one thing is true it is, as Yeat’s would say, ‘Things fall apart’. This should be a salutary reminder to us to not put our trust in things. Not that the human race is any good at remembering history. When faced with the fall of one edifice we tend to just build bigger things, often on top of the ruins of the once biggest things!
Remember the list of the Seven Wonders of the World we learnt in School? Of those seven marvellous objects built by human strength how many remain standing today? Only one, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and that needs constant care. Of course the fact that our edifices crumble and fall does not limit our hubris, and there are at least nine lists of seven different wonders of the world competing for fame, affection and, of course, our Pound, Euro, Dollar or Yen.
Perhaps one day we may come to learn, as Jesus taught his overawed disciples turned tourists, that the most important things in life aren’t things?
This begs the question, what are the most important things and what are we to do about the ‘things’ – the property, the money, and the possessions -, which we had thought to be important?
Because of the urgency of Advent we will not get to read the rest of this chapter of Mark’s Gospel this year (please feel free to do so when you get home) but three points emerge from it.
Things Fall Apart
God will not fall apart
Become an expectant people
Things Fall Apart
We know that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70CE – at about the same time as Mark was writing his gospel.
We also know that the great Roman Empire that destroyed the Temple was itself destroyed.
It’s successor at Byzantium held sway for a time only to dwindle into Constantinople and then modern day Istanbul.
And so it is that, empires and thrones, powers and dominions down the ages and across the globe have grown, prospered, flourished, withered and died. Thousand year Reichs last little more than a decade and leave only death and destruction in their wake.
This is the way things are. Our lives are but the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwreck of our own society. Yes, the human race is good at building, but we do seem to be a little over-eager and well practiced at tearing everything down again! In the end we mourn with Yeats in his poem The Second Coming written at the end of the Great War
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
God will not fall apart,
The promise of Jesus for this time of trial and tribulation is, rather un-comfortingly, ‘there will be suffering’. There is almost a perverse masochism about an approach to faith that says, ‘you will know you are on the right path when you are having a hard time!’ Not that this means for one moment that every time I’m in a difficult place I’m being persecuted – most often I deserve every lump I get – but it does mean that the Christian walk is not all motherhood and apple pie. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, ‘In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (John 16.33)
Even though things fall apart God doesn’t.
Become an expectant people
In the aftermath of the ‘war to end all wars’ Yeats longed for a new world order to replace the mire of Passchendaele, (how hackneyed a phrase ‘new world order has become’).
‘The centre cannot hold’ mostly because we are a self-centred people. Well, I know at the very least that I am self-centred, regardless of how often I try to live otherwise. I know me, and its not a pretty sight, and, like Yeat’s actors on the world stage I find myself swinging wildly between ‘lacking all conviction and full of passionate intensity’.
What are we to do? We are to deny ourselves and our selfishness. Secure in the knowledge of our frailty, knowing that in our own strength we will fail, we are set free to watch and wait for a new birth. Refusing to put our trust in ‘things’, which fall apart anyway, we learn to look and yearn for the One who is beyond ourselves.
It may be, in our lives overused to sin, that we do not look to Bethlehem with the bright eyes of young faith and we are ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’. But it is only at Bethlehem, with its simple stable rather than grandiose temple, its manger cradle rather than regal cot, where the world finds it centre again.
We are to become an expectant people! Pregnant with hope! Overflowing with the promise that things will not always be as they have been! Our trust must be placed firmly in the hands of the Babe of Bethlehem who was born to die and live again that our lives may overflow with hope and the promise of life after life.
Of Santons and salvation
Besides visiting the grand buildings in Marseilles, Toulon and Avignon next week we also want to visit a small building full of smaller buildings. In 1935 Marcel Carbonel began a family tradition of making Provençal clay figurines and his small workshop and atelière holds a museum of nativity scenes. We hope to spend time there admiring his craft, perhaps buying a few pieces for the vicarage window-sill in St John’s church, but mostly wondering in awe not at ‘large stones and large buildings’ but an enormous God found in a tiny scrap of flesh. A God who comes to find us to remind us that there will come a time when the centre will hold if we but learn once again to worship the Child born to be king.
In the days of Advent ahead may each of us learn to let go of stones and buildings and ‘things’ so that our arms and hearts are emptied and readied to welcome the most important thing, the most important person, into our lives, Christ the Lord.
© Andrew Dotchin 2018