2020 Hindsight

17 November 2012

Looking back along the path

Looking back along the path


Ministerial Synod Sermon November 2012

Mark 13.1-8


Passing through yet another birthday I become prone to reminiscence.

Sometimes it develops into a reflection on life itself, the events of my own story alongside the events that have punctuated the world’s story over that time.

When the history of the time I spent here on earth comes to be recorded from the perspective of decades rather than a few years I think the Cold War will be a truly significant feature in that record.

Yes even now we know that 911 was a turning point, but the fall of the Berlin wall seemed to finally put an end to the European conflict that arose out of a series of catastrophic consequences beginning with the shooting of an Archduke one summer morning in Sarajevo 1914.

Technically the First World War may have ended at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month but decisions around that time led to the division and turmoil that blighted Europe right up until an evening in late 1989 when East German students were joined by their Western counterparts in demolishing a wall that had stood between them for 28 years.

Footage of an ageing man on the verge of senility, recorded just two years before was broadcast across TV screens around the world.

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” urged President Reagan.

It had been a fairly significant speech at the time but it took on far greater meaning on 8 November 1989 when the wall was torn piece by piece with hands and sledgehammers.  Had the wall still been standing to this day I doubt the former Hollywood actor’s words would have been so easily remembered and so greatly honoured.

Another time, another place, another man.

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13.2).

The final compilers of the Gospel accounts may not have been there when Jesus uttered those words, but they did live at the time Jerusalem fell.

The claim Jesus made took on more significance when the stones were indeed thrown down by the forces that had laid siege to it.

The destruction of the Temple was an even greater catastrophic event in the Jewish world than Gavril Princip’s two shots that took the lives of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie.

The consequences of the assassination continued for seven decades; the consequences of the Temple’s destruction are still with us through the founding of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity’s clear break from the faith in which it had been born.

The warning that Jesus gave could only be seen as prescient in the light of subsequent events.

It is equally fascinating that the destruction of the Temple is linked with would-be Messiahs.  Rabbi Akiva declared Simon Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah during the revolt of 135 and it begs the question if that particular link in the Gospel account was only made at such a time.

And it’s not just the destruction of the Temple, so much content within the Gospel accounts were recorded as a consequence of later events.

The evangelist John would acknowledge this to some degree by concluding that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21.25).

We have to be honest, they weren’t written down because they had less significance than the ones that had.  The recorded events of Jesus’ life, the encounters he had, the parables he told all had significant meaning for those who transmitted them to their respective communities.

Many other stories were almost certainly not passed on by the apostles and evangelists because they had little or nothing to say to theirs and subsequent generations.

In our own Methodist context we can say that only a small percentage of Charles Wesley’s hymns are sung today because time has passed its judgement on those consigned to the collections of yesteryear.  Yet I still believe that our congregations are more greatly sustained by the remaining hymns of Charles than the sermons of his brother John.

Ronald Reagan said many things over the course of his Presidency but in the annals of time he will probably be most remembered for a sentence of just six words.  He may have lived 93 years but a few seconds at the Brandenburg Gate secured his place in history.

And returning to the events earlier in the twentieth century we can say that many others were murdered across Europe on 28 June 1914 but their deaths did not lead to the eventual slaughter of millions in the trenches of Passchendaele, the streets of Stalingrad, the homes of Dresden and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. They were the consequence of one morning in Sarajevo.

In our own time it is a terrifying fact that 26,000 children die from poverty-related diseases every day as they did on the day that a tenth that number perished in Manhattan’s Twin Towers; but their deaths didn’t launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that continue to cost an unknown number of lives.  They were the consequence of one morning in Manhattan.

So what of the consequences of our own lives?

What of the consequences of our respective ministries?

In this life we may never know for sure;

but what we can be sure of is the fact that given the benefit of 2020 hindsight, a phrase US politicians are prone to use, we can determine in our lives

  • what has been accurate and what was not
  • what was true and what was false
  • what was helpful and what was an unnecessary distraction.

And all this helps determine our next move.

We can learn from our failures and successes, from what was ineffective and what was effective.

We know this is what sets the human apart from the rest of the created order; fail to recognise this, fail to work constructively, decisively for the greater good and the good of our souls and we fail as human beings before God and within the communities we seek to serve.

I sometimes dread to think what I may have claimed in my sermons over the years; I certainly cannot go back to them.

But being open to the Spirit, which actually entails a lifelong search for meaning through study and reflection, ensures that next year’s sermon cannot be written now, it can only be produced and presented in the context of the time and as a consequence of events between now and then.

Even then the sermon I preach will only be worthy of remembrance if it has something to offer the hearer the next day and in the weeks that follow.

  • No sermon will be remembered if it fails to take into account the reality of a situation.
  • No sermon will be remembered if it fails to speak to the congregation.
  • No sermon will be remembered if it is shown to be empty and pointless in the face of life’s challenges.

Our words will be quickly forgotten if they speak of things too lofty for the conversation at the corner shop or if they speak of such simplistic notions that they fail to feed the hungry soul.

Getting it right is our task.

Speaking words of inspiration in an inspiring manner can change the world for they change the lives of those that hear and act upon them.

It is not an insignificant role to which we are called but it’s one that can only be judged in time, with 2020 hindsight.

Therefore we do not lose heart when times are tough,

when the words don’t seem to get through,

when all seem deaf to truth and indifferent to challenge;

indeed we remain confident in our call,

true to the Truth that stands the test of time

and faithful to the last

for only then will each of us know the sum of our efforts,

the outcome of our lives.