December 3 2017
Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; Mark 13.24-37
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Today marks the beginning of Advent – Lent’s shabby second cousin. Like Lent, it is a time of preparation. Just as Lent prepares us to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, so Advent encourages us to reflect on the coming of Christ at Christmas, the coming of Christ into each of our lives to put them right, the coming of Christ in the fullness of time to put right all that is wrong in our world.
We can never really be ready for any of this, but Christ comes anyway.
God shows up, regardless of our readiness. God enters into our humanity, into our brokenness and sin, into our pain and loss, into our arguments over identity, into our unresolved conflicts. God shows up, to save us from ourselves, since we are conspicuously incapable of doing that.
Recently I came across a coffee-table book in the library of St Andrew’s Guesthouse. Written by Mordecai Naor, it’s a book by about Jerusalem from biblical to modern times, and its title is City of Hope.
I confess that when I saw that, I burst out laughing. In today’s circumstances, Jerusalem as a city of hope seems even more fatuous than the idea of Jerusalem as a city of peace.
A century ago, on December 11 1917, General Allenby rode through west Jerusalem in a triumphal, even imperial procession. The city had fallen to the Allied forces without a shot. But when Allenby came to the Jaffa Gate, he dismounted. Together with his officers, he entered the Old City on foot, out of respect for the status of Jerusalem, a holy city important to three of the great religions of humankind: the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Back home, not everyone was so irenic: the Scotsman reported a meeting of the Presbytery of Edinburgh two days later where the Moderator rejoiced that the Holy City, which had so long been in the hands of “the infidel”, was once again in Christian hands.
A generation later, when the majority report of the UN Special Committee tried to resolve the conflict in Palestine by partitioning the land into two states, it proposed that Jerusalem be a corpus separatum under a special international regime.
Instead, the War of 1948 divided the city between Jordan and the new state of Israel, with the armistice line running just below this church, in the valley of Hinnom, dividing the Scots Memorial from the Old City and the bulk of the Christian community remaining in Jerusalem.
A generation later still, the War of 1967 reunited Jerusalem, with Israel annexing east Jerusalem and a large swathe of territory surrounding it. Today, Israel declares Jerusalem to be its “eternal, undivided capital”; but it remains, in fact, a deeply divided city.
City of hope? City of peace? Looking at the matter from a merely human standpoint, we may be inclined to scepticism.
It was ever thus.
In 586 BCE, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The temple – Solomon’s temple – was destroyed, and King Zedekiah and the leading families of Judah were taken off to exile in Babylon.
Half a century later, Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonian empire and offered these exiles the chance to return home. Some of them took it.
Our reading from Isaiah 64 seems to date from this period. The Jews returning to Jerusalem under Persian sponsorship clashed with those who had not been displaced over questions of status, identity and power.
With the rebuilding of the temple, which families should serve as priests? Who has political authority? Does the covenant with David remain in effect, or has God rejected the kings of David’s line?
Our reading asks God to step in and resolve the clashes over identity within the struggling community. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” it begins. Please come and sort us out. “Now consider, we are all your people,” it ends. This is, we may reflect, perhaps something of which God needed to be reminded less than they themselves did.
Our Gospel reading is like walking into a cinema half-way through the main feature. It’s the second half of the longest speech that Mark puts on the lips of Jesus – a speech that begins with Jesus prophesying the destruction of the second temple – the temple that Herod the Great had so greatly developed and enlarged.
This is, we should note, a prophesy and not a prediction. A generation later, the second temple was indeed destroyed, but not quite in the manner described by Jesus: it was destroyed by the armies of Titus, the Roman general, not by demolition but by fire.
Like the prophets before him, what Jesus is saying to the people is that if you continue the way you are going, everything you have built will come crashing down.
In Jerusalem today, in Ramallah and elsewhere, many are holding their breath, wondering whether Donald Trump will fulfil his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem or whether he will again sign a waiver delaying the move, as he did in June and as his predecessors did for over two decades before that.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post at the beginning of this year, Yudith Oppenheimer argued that no embassy should move to Jerusalem until it becomes a city of peace.
Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem in the current circumstances, in which there is both political stagnation and daily tension on the streets of the city, she argued, is a dangerous unilateral move that would deny the reality of Jerusalem as the home of two peoples. In the fiftieth anniversary of the annexation of east Jerusalem by Israel, where 40% of Jerusalem’s residents are still ruled without their consent and without equal rights it would be particularly provocative.
Countries around the world are unwilling to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, she wrote, not because they deny the deep Jewish historic connection to this city, but rather because they understand that peace can come only when the Palestinian bond to Jerusalem is also respected. “Both peoples have profound existential, historical and symbolic connections to the city, and both will continue to live side by side in any future political constellation.”
“This city has known much loss, destruction and pain,” she concluded, “but we can and must choose for Jerusalem a different present and future.”
Today, as in the time of the return from exile or the time of Jesus, people argue fiercely about what that future and that political constellation should be. Yudith Oppenheimer is the executive director of Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO that aspires to a sustainable future for Jerusalem as the shared capital of two sovereign states. Personally, I am more inclined to see a future Jerusalem as the shared capital of a single sovereign state.
Those arguments, which are above all arguments about identity, will continue. But we can perhaps agree at least on this much. Ir Amim means “city of nations” or “city of peoples”. Jerusalem will be a city of hope and a city of peace only when we find what for so long has eluded us: a way for Jerusalem to be a city of two peoples and three faiths.
Corrine Carvalho, “Commentary on First Reading” , December 3 2017, workingpreacher.org
Walter T Dunlop, Faith Rewarded: The Story of St Andrew’s Scots Memorial (Peterborough: Fastprint, 2014)
Gerard Israel and Jacques Lebar, When Jerusalem Burned (New York: William Morrow, 1973)
David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Commentary on Gospel”, December 3 2017, workingpreacher.org
Karoline Lewis, “Advent Time”, workingpreacher.org
Mordecai Naor, City of Hope: Jerusalem from Biblical to Modern Times (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Yedioth Ahronoth – Chemed Books, 1996)
Yudith Oppenheimer, “America’s embassy in Jerusalem – only as a city of peace”, Jerusalem Post, January 25, 2017