Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sermon for 27th November 2011.

 The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface, Siesta Key FL
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

The bible is not the “Old Farmer’s Almanac”, a manual of common sense good advice, and of dubious predictions about the weather.  Nor is the bible a prototype for the Mayan calendar.

Jesus is not Nostradamus, an obtuse and confusing so-called prophet whose visions of the future are capable of a million and one interpretations.  Nor is Jesus Ann Landers, giving helpful advice to helpless people.

The bible is a library.  It consists of 66 books which are conveniently bound into one volume.  My friend the Revd. Andrew McGowan writes this “like any library, the Bible was collected, not composed”.

He goes on to say: “But what difference does it make that the Bible is a library? When you read one book, it may be fair to ask “is this true?” or “is this right?” But such questions, .......are the wrong ones to ask of libraries. It is both impossible and insufficient for a library to be “true” – a bus ticket or a tax invoice can be true, but the truths of a library are diverse. One should ask whether a library is outstanding, expansive, comprehensive, useful – it must, simply, be “good”. A library does not exist to contain propositions, but to change lives".

The questions we must ask of the library we call the bible are the same. “Are the books outstanding, expansive, comprehensive and useful?”  Some are.  Some are not.  When we read passages such as today’s gospel reading our question should not be “is this true”. Rather, we might ask – “is it useful?”

As for Jesus, he and his teachings cannot be easily catalogued and comprehended.  Just as soon as we believe we know everything about the meaning of Jesus, we discover that we understand nothing.

Today’s Gospel snippet starts at an awkward place in the narrative. “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”. 

It’s a clumsy and rather silly way to begin a reading for it gives us no clue as to what has gone before in the text.  What were “those days, after the suffering”?

“Those days and that suffering” probably refer to what we call the first Jewish war.  The Jews of Galilee and Judaea chafed under the despotic rule of Rome.  Isolated guerrilla actions against the Roman led to a full scale insurrection, and to the most brutal and repressive response by Rome, staring in Galilee in AD 66, moving through the horrendous siege and fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and the final defeat of the Jewish patriots who were holed up in the fortress at Masada in AD 73.  They were days of horrendous repression and untold suffering and death.  Think – Syria in our present time.

The sun and the moon being darkened may be metaphorical references to the darkness people experience in time of great distress, times when their very lives are threatened and turned upside down -  as was certainly the case for the Jews and the members of the Jesus movement in first century Palestine.

“When lives are turned upside down”.  We all know about that. A sudden and deathly illness, and unexpected and unwanted divorce, being laid off with no chance of getting a new job, having a dear family member exposed as a fraud -  these and many other human experiences lead to our lives being turned upside down. 
Even good events can be entirely disruptive of our “normal” lives.  Good events such as the birth of a much wanted child  -  it’s all very wonderful, but  goodness me, it does disturb our normalicies.  And just when we think we’ve mastered this new way of life, along comes another child. We think that we’ve become experts -  but oh no – the second child is never a carbon copy of the first!

So, in life changing or disrupting circumstances, is today’s text useful?   

My answer is “no” and “yes”.

No, if we are looking for an easy answer, a quick fix, the placebo effect.

Yes, if we are open to disciplined lives.  “Keep watch” says Jesus.  This speaks to me of the discipline of prayer.  I do not mean the kind of “polite, afternoon tea, with pinky-extended” kind of prayer.  I am talking about the prayer which argues with God, which protests to God, which challenges God. If we take prayer seriously as a daily discipline we shall find that our minds and wills become aligned with God’s good purposes.  We shall begin to discover that God is faithful even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

My words shall not pass away”“.  This speaks to me of the discipline of attention to scripture.  If we immerse ourselves in the entire library of scripture rather than in these rather ridiculous snippets which we get each Sunday, we shall discover those uncomfortable and unpleasant truths which challenge our hubris and self sufficiency, and move us to becoming people of justice, mercy and reconciliation.

In a few minutes that gorgeous little disrupter of Kevin, Evanne and Connor Scully’s lives will enter into the fellowship of Christ’s Body in his baptism.  His name is Quinn William Scully.  Because his mom and dad love him so much, and because they want the very best for him, they have made the wise decision that he should be baptised.

Quinn will enter into this community of defiance which we call the Church.  He will begin a life of disciplined prayer.  As he grows into his life of faith he will hear the words of both encouragement and challenge which come to us in Holy Scripture.

He may well learn that becoming a christian raises more questions about the nature of human life than it provides answers.

He will grow to know that Christianity is not a quick fix for life’s ills, problems and disruptions.  Rather he, with us, will be equipped to face all that life offers, good, bad or indifferent,  sustained and challenged by the presence of the mysterious but ever faithful God.


  1. "If we immerse ourselves in the entire library of scripture rather than in these rather ridiculous snippets which we get each Sunday, we shall discover those uncomfortable and unpleasant truths which challenge our hubris and self sufficiency, and move us to becoming people of justice, mercy and reconciliation."

    Amen. And thank you. :)

    Susan H. (for some reason, I can't comment unless I choose the "anonymous" option - stymied by technology!)

  2. Nice work! And so, can you imagine someone going up to a librarian and asking, "What does this library say about....." !
    (Dean Taylor, aka "anonymous")