St James' Church West End Come and see for yourself

Past, present and future……?

Preached by Alan Jenkins LLM on the evening of 15 November 2020: Second Sunday before Advent
1 Kings 1:15-40 / Revelation 1:14-18

Evensong scripture readings for this Sunday all resonate with our current global situation, and so, together, highlights some parallels with the particular times we are in just now. 

Our Old Testament reading (1 Kings 1:15-40) is set around the struggle for the succession to King David, with rival camps for Adonijah and Solomon making a play for the throne.  The matter was settled by the word of the old King David, and so Solomon reigned.  In the USA at the moment confrontations for presidential power have been raging, and the future may well be a revelation yet to be seen.

Our New Testament extract (Revelation 1:14-18) is very much concerned with a future, too, as John tries to describe a world beyond the present, in the context of the Jewish understanding that time was divided into two ages – the present which was beyond redemption, and the future, the age to come, God’s golden age of peace, prosperity and righteousness that would vindicate the people’s right to be known as the people of God. Our present times, if not beyond redemption, are certainly experiences that we want to displace by a better age, and we must hope that all that is going on at present to overcome the Covid virus will prevail, so that a vision of a new age can be seen and realised.

And then we have Psalm 98:19-29, which focuses on the past, on God’s covenant with David, a scene-setter as it were for unhappy present times, and an entreaty for better times to come.

So, taking tonight’s scripture as a whole we are compelled to consider time, ages, eras, in terms of past, present and future.  At this time of the year we pause to look back, with All Souls, All Saints, and Remembrance etc.  Important as it is to remember with thanks and gratitude the saints, redeemers and guardians who have gone before, it is also vital that we can have visions of a future that is worth striving for.

Tom Wright, theologian, professor and a former Bishop of Durham, has written a book entitled ‘God and the Pandemic’, and earlier Brenda Holden had kindly offered to lead a reading and discussion group which would have effectively looked at the obvious question ‘Why does God let things like this happen?’  Sadly, the Covid restrictions themselves have prevented the group from forming, but that should not detract any of us from reading the book.

Early on, Wright takes us back to the pagan world of Greece and Rome, when thinkers and observers basically came from one of three categories: Stoics, who believed that everything was pre-destined, and couldn’t be changed; the Epicureans who believed that everything is random, so you couldn’t do anything more than put up with it; and the Platonists, who looked on present life as a shadow of reality, to be replaced by the destiny of a different world.

Any of these classical approaches may produce excuses for doing nothing, an inertia that, however, may be awoken to feed an increasingly common reaction today to find someone to blame.  The consequences of the pandemic produce any number of issues that could potentially be laid at someone’s door, but merely to find a scapegoat now for something that had happened in the past, cannot usefully contribute to providing solutions for the future.

Historians record the past, prophets look at the present, and visionaries see the future, and so, in the context of the pandemic, Tom Wright examines where we go from here.  He acknowledges that there is a place for lament, not just feeling sorry for ourselves, but understanding the nature of grief for what has happened, as part of love.  This is part of living through the present, which as Christians we should do in the context of talking about God in an increasingly secular society, trying to understand how Jesus acknowledges opposing views and attitudes.

And the crunch question for Tom Wright, and all of us, is ‘How do we recover?’  He looks at different imperatives, and considers possible initiatives and outcomes. Some are ‘no-brainers’ some are inevitable, and some will only succeed if everyone has a common sense of determination to make them work. 

We could sum up our response to that question in one word – ‘faith’ or perhaps ‘hope’, but either way faith anchors hope for us in the context of Christian teaching.  So, all that we learn, all that we believe, all that we can share with each other, should be used to uphold the fundamental desire to prevail as equal citizens of this world and God’s Kingdom, in homage to him, and with integrity as stewards of his gifts of creation to us.

A duty, a responsibility, of course, but understand that it is essential that we all make a positive response, however we can, to declare that God is with us, and has faith in us. So he is asking us, as Christ’s disciples, to respond faithfully, hopefully, confident in the future that John’s Revelation puts before us.