Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18], 19-25; Mark 13.1-8
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
JESUS’s answer to the disciples’ question about the end of all things (Mark 13.6-8) is a gift to those of an apocalyptic turn of mind. Their interest in cataclysmic events, which can usually be conveniently attached to current items in world news, is not blunted by the cautionary opening: “Beware that no one leads you astray” (Mark 13.5).
Nor is it modified by what follows. Jesus will go on to speak of the personal cost of being a disciple, disowned by family, punished by civic authorities, and hated for speaking in his name (Mark 13.9-13).
There is a difference between apocalypse and eschatology, between a vision of our relationship to God cast in terms of violent punishment of sin in a series of cosmic disasters, and one framed in the light of a promise of salvation already given in Christ.
Knowing that difference may not make circumstances easier for the victims of war, persecution, famine, drought, and earthquakes. It is certainly not a quick and easy answer to perplexity about the action (or not) of a loving God in all these things. But it does make it possible to be purposeful about living in the good time that is given to us.
It is this time that interests the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who continues to explore Jesus’s high-priestly ministry in contrast to the kind of priesthood familiar to the audience. The distinction is itself best defined in terms of time. Conventional priests repeat the offering of sacrifices, “day after day”, because human sin is repetitive. As sinful human beings themselves, they can never get beyond the daily need for atonement.
Jesus, perfectly human and perfectly divine, has offered a sacrifice not confined by time, but “for all time”, needing no repetition (Hebrews 10.11-12). And, having done that, he has reset the clock according to the time of salvation, sitting down at God’s right hand to wait until those for whom he died catch up (Hebrews 10.12-13).
This is not passivity or disengagement. Waiting is dependent on relationship, imagined as a covenant, and kept alive by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 10.16). The writer recalls Jeremiah, who wrote of the covenant that God would establish with Israel after the exile — not as a theoretical agreement, but as a living and embodied promise, written on the hearts and minds of the people (Hebrews 10.16-17; Jeremiah 31.31-34).
In this new covenant, there is an answering embodied element in the blood of Jesus that washes sin away, and the flesh that becomes the way for our imperfect flesh to find its way to God (Hebrews 10.19-20).
How should this time of active waiting be used? The writer offers urgent practical advice to those who have received the hope and assurance of sin forgiven. They are to goad one another “to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10.24).
English translations have not retained the energising picture of a sudden outburst of love, suggested by the Greek “paroxusmon” and still used to convey extremes of behaviour — from paroxysms of weeping to paroxysms of overspending. They focus on the root word (“oxus” — sharp), and choose the more prosaic “provoke one another” (Hebrews 10.25) to describe the almost competitive encouragement demanded of the Christian community with its eye on the end of “the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12.1).
Such incitement is best achieved by meeting regularly for worship, study, and hospitality (Hebrews 10.25) — all part of a training for life in God’s eternal Kingdom.
This week we commemorate vernacular saints whose stories are models of these good principles made real in dedicated lives. Margaret (16 November) the English princess, who grew up in exile in Hungary while the Danes ruled England, returned to marry the King of Scotland after the Conquest, and devoted herself to the feeding of the poor and the good governance of the Church.
Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (17 November), reorganised his vast diocese, cared for the poor, the lepers, and the oppressed, and opposed the persecution of Jews. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby (19 November), presided over the reconciliation of the Roman and Celtic traditions in Britain at the Synod of 664, and brought greater peace and unity to the Church. Edmund, King of the East Angles (20 November), died under a hail of Danish arrows, refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
They are among the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12.1) who show us that, however harsh its conditions, there is much to be done with the time we have.