Preacher: The Rev’d Grant Moore
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may, or may not, remember the St Martin’s Patronal Festival when Olwen and I were last here. We had a Quiz Night! And there was a whole round of ten questions dedicated to St Martin; Round 1 in fact! The questions covered things like, where St Martin was born – Hungary; his first vocation in life – the Military; how long he was a bishop – 25 years; etc., etc. My favourite question was Number 8: “What miracle is reputed to have happened to the trees on the riverbank during St Martin’s riverboat funeral procession?” The answer? It’s said that as the boat carrying St Martin’s body went past, the trees on the riverbank burst into blossom.
Whether that’s factually true or not, who knows for sure? Like it or not, the lives of the saints, as they’ve been passed down to us, are a combination of history and legend, and the respective elements can’t always be easily disentangled.
Nevertheless, there’s enough on record to know that St Martin was a conscientious objector who wanted to be a monk; a monk who was press-ganged into being a bishop; a bishop who fought paganism and pleaded for mercy for heretics. And, perhaps most surprising, considering the troubled times; one of the first saints not to be a martyr. All in all, St Martin was a courageous, generous, humble and devoted servant of Christ.
What we’re not so sure of, is the theological stance he adopted on many issues. And I’m certainly not sure how he would have interpreted this morning’s gospel passage. However, since we’re celebrating his Feast Day, I’ll open it up with a story from those bygone times.
The story concerns a nobleman, who, on a particular occasion, rode into the forest to practice his archery skills. He hadn’t gone far when he began to notice a series of targets painted on various trees. But what really took his attention was that someone had shot an arrow right into the centre of each target. Every arrow a bullseye!
The nobleman was so impressed with such marksmanship that when he got home he rounded up some of his men and sent them in search of the unknown archer. Eventually they found him – and to their great surprise, he was only a boy. So they brought him to their master who immediately asked the secret of his extraordinary skill. “Oh, that’s easy!” replied the boy. “First I shoot the arrows, then I paint the target around them.”
I can’t think of a story which better illustrates the proclivities of the self-proclaimed prophets that Jesus warned against in today’s gospel. They’ve been at it for as long as the Christian gospel has been preached. Especially in this modern era! They love to adorn the arrow of time with their self-imposed timetables.
Do you, for example, remember Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth? In it, Lindsay predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” Hal’s still writing, but, like many others, he’s had to revise his timetable. But such efforts, as well-intentioned as they are in many cases, miss the point. Whether the end is tomorrow, next year, or in a thousand years, it’s Christ’s intention that we live our lives as though we would enter his visible presence this very day.
I think St Martin got that! He got that if you’re doing what the Lord wants you to be doing today, then you don’t have to worry about end-time timetables. Every day is effectively the last day!
Human curiosity being what it is, Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question about the future certainly invites speculation. All the same, as our Lord warns elsewhere, there’s simply no way we can read God’s clock down to the last second. And, as I just pointed out, no need to! We just need to discern how best to cope with the times in which we live. And what interesting times they are! Witness the tectonic shift in the political landscape this very week. But it doesn’t alter the necessity to continue living lives of trusting faith and practical love – come what may!
There isn’t time to delve into all the nuances of today’s gospel. There’s actually a sermon in every sentence of Jesus’ answer – even in every clause. Suffice it for me to draw your attention to two points. First, Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the temple.
Herod’s Temple was an amazing structure. It totally dominated Jerusalem’s skyline. For sheer splendour and great size, it was unequalled in Israel. It’s estimated, for instance, that 400,000 people could fit into its outer court. If anything represented permanence in the life of Jesus’ contemporaries, it was the temple.
Yet here was Jesus saying the unthinkable. A time was approaching when it would be completely torn down – not one stone left on another. The disciples must have been incredulous. A bit like a New Yorker if you’d told him prior to 9/11 that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre would be razed to the ground. Unimaginable! What seems most solid in this life, can, in the end, turn out to be quite temporary. That’s the bed-rock truth beneath Jesus’ prediction. Nothing in this material life is permanent. Your world can collapse around you in a moment.
There are probably dyed-in-the-wool Democrats in the US today who feel their world has collapsed around them – that the rug’s been pulled out from beneath them – a lá Donald Trump! But it can be far more personal – the death of a spouse; one’s life-savings siphoned off by a cyber scam; being thrown on the employment scrapheap with little or no notice. There’s nothing, and no-one, beyond God himself, in whom we can invest our ultimate trust.
The second point is this: Jesus promised his followers that despite whatever horrors they might encounter in the future, not a hair of your head will perish. What was it he said elsewhere? “Don’t be afraid of those who can only kill the body. Instead, fear him who has the power to cast both body and soul into hell.” In other words, whatever happens to us in this life, whether we trudge wearily through a vale of suffering, or skip joyfully along pleasant lanes, or oscillate somewhere in between; even if we were to come to a sticky end, God will ensure our safe entrance into his heavenly Kingdom. Nothing of the essential you will be lost in the next life. That is a precious promise.
And one that St Martin obviously treasured. There were times when the great saint risked his life in the line of Christian service – notably his offer to his military commanders to go into battle unarmed and his courageous defence of the heretic Priscillian – who, despite his best efforts, was eventually executed. Clearly, Jesus’ words were not only taken at face value by St Martin, but they were also taken to heart.
What an exemplar! St Martin of Tours! Whether or not those riverbank trees really did burst into blossom, he was a true champion of the Christian gospel. This morning we salute his memory, and, by God’s grace, hope to emulate his life of faith.