WHAT CAN I SAY?
(based on Luke 21: 5-19)
Brede – 17 November 2013
If you stand on the Mount of Olives today, you have a wonderful view across the Kidron Valley to the old city of Jerusalem. The view is dominated by the Dome of the Rock, with the gold leaf of the roof reflecting the sunlight, contrasting with the startlingly white buildings all around. It is a view that takes your breath away and raises your spirits. So it was for the disciples of Jesus when they stood on the same spot and gazed at the old city. Only then the focus was not the Dome of the Rock but Herod’s temple, one of the most spectacular buildings in the ancient world. It was still not completed but splendid with its white marble façade and the great golden vine as tall as a man, set over the door by Herod himself. No wonder the companions of Jesus were exclaiming with joy. But today Jesus himself is not admiring the building. In sombre words, he is predicting what will happen to the Jewish nation and to Christians at some unspecified time in the future. He foretells the destruction of the great temple, which took place in 70 AD at the hands of the Roman army. What is to come later sounds all too familiar to us. Jesus foretells wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom. Last week, Remembrance Sunday, we were thinking about those who gave their lives in war. But wars are happening in many parts of the world today. Great earthquakes, famines and plagues with dreadful portents; this seems to fit the terrible situation in the Philippines at the moment. Man’s inhumanity to man and Nature’s indifference to man.
Then Jesus turns to the more immediate plight of his followers. Before the wars and natural disasters, he says, Christians will be arrested and persecuted. They will be handed over to synagogues (which served as courts) and prisons, and will be brought before kings and governors because of the name of Jesus. He doesn’t need to spell out what happens next; trials, false witness, imprisonment, torture and death. But rather than commiserating or even giving his disciples the option of leaving before the going gets tough, he tells them “This will give you an opportunity to testify”. An amazingly positive spin on such a frightening threat. Even more unexpected are Jesus’ next words: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance”. In another translation it is perhaps clearer: “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves”. How impossible, we think, not to worry beforehand. Left in a prison cell, without the support of family or friends, colleagues, lawyers or priests, how would you not worry about what you were going to say?
Of the three kinds of threat Jesus describes, I suppose we are most likely to encounter being put on the spot and expected to defend our Christian faith. Can you think on your feet? I absolutely cannot and I have the greatest admiration for people who can. To be able to rise to the occasion and say something worth hearing at short notice. I still blush to recall an occasion at school when we played ‘Just a Minute’. I was given the title ‘Sussex’ and I dried up after about two sentences. I stood there tongue-tied and the audience sat in silence looking at me for what felt like half an hour. How embarrassing! Embarrassing but not important. More serious are the occasions when we are given the chance to testify to our Christian faith but cannot find the words. We need not be in court or in prison or being persecuted for our beliefs. Everyday life brings plenty of opportunities to tell or to demonstrate what God’s love means – for example in illness or bereavement or personal misfortune among those we meet. Yet how often do we rise to the occasion? How often do you, like me, think what to say about two days later?
I have been thinking about my father, Jim Gasson, quite a lot recently. He was born on 17 November 1913, so he would have been one hundred years old today. He left school at 14 and was sent to work in a Hastings solicitors’ office, a miserable dead-end job with mean employers. Growing up in a large family, he did however have other resources. He and all his brothers attended church regularly and joined the choir, and had piano lessons. (How my grandparents could afford piano lessons, I cannot imagine). Dad wove together those various strands and became a church organist. From 1935 to 1945 he was organist here at Brede and he built up an enthusiastic choir. In those days they all sat in the gallery, which must have been a tight fit sometimes. One entry in his diary reads “Very poor attendance for Ash Wednesday; only 17 in the congregation but 19 in the choir”.
There was a famous occasion when the Rector, Father Hill, was taken ill just before Evensong. Brede had no assistant priest at that time. Unfazed, Dad played the organ as usual, directed the choir and conducted the service, which would have involved many quick descents from the organ gallery. Most remarkably, he even preached a sermon. This is not just a tall story, for I have talked to old residents of Brede who still remembered it happening. Part of my reason for training as a Reader was to prepare me for emergencies like the one my Dad faced. Now I could probably manage the readings and prayers, but I could never preach a sermon at the drop of a hat.
Jesus, of course, has the answer. “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”. Even when we are under attack, we are to keep our hearts fixed on our main purpose, which is to trust in Jesus for the immediate words we are to use and to testify faithfully. We must not be over-prepared. Indeed, how could we, for we cannot know what testing situation will confront us. If we hear someone trot out a ready-made sentiment, it always sounds insincere, too glib. But I think we can be prepared in the sense of working out what it is we believe in. ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ What do you think about that question? ‘I think Jesus was a good man but how could he be the Son of God?’ ‘Can’t I be a Christian without going to church?’ ‘Aren’t all religions the same?’ ‘Isn’t religion the cause of all wars?’ It behoves us, I think, to articulate our faith in our own minds, so that when the need arises, we don’t have the answer off pat but we have a firm foundation to draw on. I believe in trusting God but I think we should be prepared to help him too.
Dr Ruth Gasson, MBE is a Lay Preacher at St. George's Church