‘The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ Jesus’ words remind us that even apparently solid and dependable things are not permanent. They are subject to the vagaries of fortune.
In the Philippines we see whole towns and cities which have been demolished by the wind and the rain. Most of the buildings were of what one expert called ‘light construction’ but even substantial buildings like town halls have been destroyed.
One computer animation showed what can happen if a window blows in during a storm; even an apparently solid building made of bricks can be compromised. The wise man built his house upon the rock, but the winds came and the rains came and even that house could not stand!
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections,’ said Jesus, ‘Do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ If we’re not thinking about the Philippines then it’s Syria which currently preoccupies the news. Christian Aid sent me something which quoted a UN official, who said that Syria was the worst human-made disaster to befall the world for a very long time.
Actually, I think there’s a competition for worst human-made disaster, even in the relatively recent past. What about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been continuously at war with itself, and fought over by its neighbours, for more than twenty years? There has been unimaginable suffering there too, but it doesn’t get onto our TV screens. No one goes to see, whereas we have all seen the destruction wrought in Syria. Only this week the BBC reported an attack by Muslim extemists on a Christian school which had left several children dead.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that people would live in continual fear and danger of violent death, and their lives would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short without strong government. He knew what he was talking about because he had lived through the English Civil War, which killed more people - in proportion to the size of the population at the time - than even the First World War. What do you do, though, if the strong government is itself making some people’s lives nasty, brutish and short? That was the problem in Syria, and in Sri Lanka, of course, where a reign of fear and danger of violent death was brought to an end only by an equally nasty and brutish response.
And we won’t be immune from all this. We don’t live in a bubble. Someone kindly sent me a map the other day showing what Europe will look like if all the ice caps melt. I was alarmed to see that my house, my town even, your town too, will disappear if that happens. And well it might. ‘Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
What should we learn from Jesus’ words? Not to put too much reliance on earthly treasure, which can be destroyed by moth, rust and the sword. Not to put too much reliance on the solid things around us, things we can touch and hold onto. There is an assumption in our materialistic culture that concrete things are somehow more tangible, more real, than ideas and values. The Christmas adverts will have us believe that things can make us happy and bring hope and love. But things have serious limitations. We come into the world without any of them and we go out of the world without any of them.
Of course I’m probably talking to the converted. And yet, we’re putting a great deal of effort - you and me both - into trying to create for Horbury a new church which, in Jesus’ words, will be ‘adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God’. This passage is just a timely reminder not to lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s people who make up a church. It’s values that are eternal. Bricks and mortar are subsidiary to our main purpose. In time, not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
Then, of course, I guess we have to learn a proper respect for nature. We are not its masters. Being stewards of creation does not mean being the managers of nature and the environment, it means working with the grain, collaborating with nature and the environment.
Finally, it’s fashionable to knock politics and politicians. Often they get it wrong. Often their motives are tainted by self-interest or class-interest, or whatever. Often power corrupts them. But life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short without them. Our task is not to undermine and belittle the role of politicians, but to work hard to get the best politicians we can - supporting the good and challenging the bad.
Someone reminded me the other day that Tony Benn has five powerful questions which we should keep asking of our politicians: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?
It’s not just politicians who need to answer those questions. Methodist ministers need to answer them. Church stewards need to answer them. All sorts of managers and leaders need to face up to them. When we have the opportunity to testify, will we need to worry about preparing our defence in advance, or will we have the confidence that our faith and our integrity will help us to answer the questions and satisfy or silence our critics?
And yet, says Jesus, we are not to worry. I went to a training course last week about Safeguarding - protecting children and vulnerable adults from harm - and the legal implications for charities and churches. ‘I’m going to ruin your morning’ said the trainer, as he rattled off a series of unpalatable and disturbing facts. But the subtext was, do not be anxious because ‘I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’ That’s the message of Jesus, too. Whatever happens, he is with us. Not one hair of our heads will perish and by our endurance we will gain our souls.