Monday, 25 November 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 1 December 2019,
First Sunday of Advent

‘Almighty God, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness’ (The Advent Collect) … darkness falls on the streets of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 1 December 2019, is the First Sunday of Advent, also known as Advent Sunday.

This Sunday marks the beginning of Year A in the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, and during this coming year we are working our way through Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

Throughout Advent, the Sunday readings as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland, provide for only one set of readings on the Sundays.

The Readings:

The lectionary readings for next Sunday are: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36–44.

There is a link to the readings HERE

‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’ (Romans 13: 11) … ‘If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake’ (Matthew 24: 43) … sleeping at the unexpected hour in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Introducing the Readings:

The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year.

How do we begin our beginnings?

In Alice in Wonderland (Chapter 12), the White Rabbit put on his spectacles.

‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

But in Advent we seem to start where we ought to stop. As we begin the lectionary readings for Year A, we are at the end of Christ’s life. But this is our beginning. For Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of Christ, not just as the child in the Christmas crib, but for the coming of Christ as king, and the ushering is of the Kingdom of God.

Our end is in our beginning.

TS Eliot’s poem East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November and ends:

In my end is my beginning.

But it opens:

In my beginning is my end.

The radical author, professor and preacher, the Revd Robin Meyers, described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as ‘scholarly, pastoral, prophetic, and eloquent,’ has written: ‘Life itself passes daily judgment on the idea that [God is in control], that good deeds and righteous living exempt us from mindless tragedy, or that the meek will inherit anything other than a crushing debt and a dead planet.’

But in a sermon some years ago in the First [Congregational] Church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the First Sunday of Advent, his colleague, the church historian, the Revd Dr J Mary Luti, of Andover Newton Theological School, responded: ‘Nonetheless, and hoping against hope, today’s scriptures emphatically encourage us to stand firm, to refuse to throw in the towel. God really is in charge, they assert, and one day you won’t have to take that on faith … Thus the first Sunday of Advent intends to make a pre-emptive strike on despair as the Church sets out on another year of following Christ from manger to grave, and beyond.’

On the first Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves in a unique position, standing both at the beginning and at the end, precisely at the turning–point of the liturgical year. This peculiar experience of living within a paradox is a characteristic of the Christian faith. However, perhaps the greatest paradox of Advent is the tension between the joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the inevitability of the cross.

In one sense, Advent does not end at Christmas. The nativity, the Incarnation, cannot be separated from the crucifixion, the Atonement. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world, of the ‘Word made flesh’ and dwelling among us, is to reveal God and His grace to the world through Jesus’ life and teaching, but also through his suffering, death, and resurrection. So, at the beginning of things, we think about the end of things.

The readings for Sunday reflect this emphasis on Christ’s second coming and include themes of accountability, judgment, and the hope of eternal life. In the words of TS Eliot,

What we call the beginning is often the end
and to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from
. (TS Eliot, Little Gidding)

‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ (Isaiah 2: 4) … ‘Humanity’s Contempt for Humanity’ by Peter Walker in last year’s ‘Consequence of War’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Isaiah 2: 1-5:

Isaiah is writing ca 740 BC, when the people of Judah are facing Assyrian armies preparing to conquer Jerusalem, and many people doubt God’s power to preserve the House of David and to keep his promises to the people. But there were other people too who believed they were invincible in the face of enemies.

Jerusalem began on the eastern hill or mountain. By the time of Isaiah, the city had expanded on to part of the western hill. Zion (verse 3) was originally the name of the southern slope of the eastern hill, the site of the first settlement. This name was later used for the whole city.

The Prophet Isaiah promises that in the future, in ‘days to come,’ God will usher in a new era in which he will dwell on earth. His presence above all others on earth symbolises his sovereignty.

The prophet foretells a time when all peoples will make their pilgrimage to the mountain of the Lord, to Jerusalem, to worship God, and to learn the way of living revealed by God. There, all will learn God’s ways so that they may walk in his paths.

In these days to come, God will settle disputes between the nations and arbitrate between many peoples. It will be an age of peace, it which warfare being a thing of the past, when swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks.

It is appropriate at the beginning of Advent to respond to the call: ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (verse 5).

‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you' (Psalm 122: 6) … the Holocaust Memorial in the centre of Bratislava on the site of the former Neolog Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Psalm 122:

The Psalm continues the themes of pilgrimage and peace.

We are invited to go up to ‘the house of the Lord,’ to Jerusalem, and ‘to give thanks to the name of the Lord.’

The psalmist prays to God for peace and prosperity for ‘my relatives and friends’ and for those who love God.

‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (Romans 13: 12) … night time in the centre of Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Romans 13: 11-14:

Earlier in this chapter (13: 1-8), Saint Paul writes about the obligations Christians have to civil authorities, and continues his instructions on ethics. The only thing we owe as Christians to others – Christians and non-Christians – is love: ‘the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’ (Romans 13: 8).

All the commandments, he tells us, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (13: 9), ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13: 10).

Now, Saint Paul offers a wake-up call, reminding us that we are living in the present but also looking forward to the Advent of Christ. ‘For Salvation is nearer to us now … the night is far gone, the day is near’ (13: 11-12).

We are moving from darkness to light, from evil to good, and we are called to live as if that day has already dawned.

‘And they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’ (Matthew 24: 39) … flooded fields in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Matthew 24: 36-44:

The geographical setting for this Gospel story is the Mount of Olives. Christ has been with the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem, where has been teaching each day in that closing week.

Now we move to the end of the day, when he is on the Mount of Olives, looking back across the valley towards the City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In the valley below are the tombs of prophets, priests and kings, one of the most breath-taking scenes I have seen.

Even to this day it is the burial place of pious Jews, political Jews, rabbis and prime ministers and monarchs, buried there waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, so that they can rise up with him on his arrival and join him as he makes his way down from the Mount of Olives, across the Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

It is a setting that provides the dramatic backdrop for this reading, which is full of apocalyptic imagery as Christ talks about his imminent return.

Of course, Christ does not claim to know the exact time when this will happen – this is something that only the Father knows. But even if Christ does not tell his disciples when this time is coming, he warns them to be ready for it, to be constantly on the watch and to be prepared and ready for it. Sleepers awake!

If they watch and are ready, they will not be taken by surprise – unlike those who are surprised by a tsunami or by a thief in the night.

Yet, these same disciples will fall asleep in the garden, even when he asks them to ‘stay awake with me’ (Matthew 26: 36-46).

How often we live our lives in a carefree, happy-go-lucky manner, careless and without a worry about what the future might bring, almost asleep and oblivious to what is going on around us, asleep while the world groans, content while the world suffers.

And so the Gospel reading is linked with what we should be waiting for, awake for, hoping for: for out of Zion, from Jerusalem, shall come the word when Christ comes to judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples: ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (see Isaiah 2: 3-4).

The story of Noah and the flood (verse 37; see Genesis 6 ff) has a particular significance for Christians in the early Church, for Noah was a man who lived by faith, and who was preserved from destruction by his obedience to God. But also because the story of Noah and those who entered the Ark also symbolise those who enter the waters of Baptism and are a new creation (see Hebrews 11: 7; I Peter 3: 30; and II Peter 2: 5).

But this is also apocalyptic literature. And, like all apocalyptic literature, there is hope as well as warning, there is peace as well as doom. And this visionary expectation is conveyed through drama and poetry and poetic language.

See how ‘that day and hour’ (τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας, verse 36) is a refrain that is repeated: ‘what day’ (ποίᾳ ἡμέρᾳ verse 42), ‘hour’ (ὥρᾳ, verse 44), and later, beyond this reading but continuing the same piece: ‘day … and at an hour’ (ἡμέρᾳ … καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ, verse 50), ‘the day nor the hour’ (τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν, 25: 13).

And, in another form of poetry or dramatic emphasis, we have the inclusion formed by repeating the words: so will be the coming of the Son of Man (see verse 37 and 39).

Or there is poetry in verses 40-41, which is missed if the translation you have treats these verses as prose and narrative, and runs it all together as consecutive sentences:

δύο ἔσονται
ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ,
εἷς παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται:

δύο ἀλήθουσαι
ἐν τῷ μύλῳ,
μία παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ μία ἀφίεται.

What does Saint Matthew mean by the coming, Parousia (Παρουσία) in verses 37 and 39? This is a word used only by Saint Matthew among the Gospel writers, just as ‘the close of the age’ is another phrase that is peculiar to him alone.

Parousia means the presence, or the coming, the arrival, the advent, the future visible return from heaven of Christ, to raise the dead, to sit at the last judgment, and to set up formally and gloriously the kingdom of God.

The coming of the Son of Man is going to be divisive for all society. Kingdom values are not merely counter-cultural – they are socially divisive, for the values of this world should never be confused with or identified with the values of the Kingdom of God.

The visionary images in this passage can be compared with the apocalyptic visions throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament.

But it is full of promise. The wedding feast is a recurring image of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom; the two women even manages, for me, to call me back to Ruth and Naomi in the field, which looks forward to the Messianic hope, while the parting of pairs, whether in a field or on a threshing floor, reminds me that the word of God is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4: 12), or in the apocalyptic language used by Saint John on Patmos, from the mouth of God comes ‘a sharp, two-edged sword’ (Revelation 1: 16; 19: 15).

The division cuts through visible and apparent distinctions. We can stay with the values of this world, or be taken into the values of the Kingdom of God, but we cannot have both. Take it or leave it – destruction or the kingdom?

Watch, therefore, and be alert.

‘They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’ (Matthew 24: 39) … tourists tip-toe through the Acqua Alta in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reflecting on the Gospel reading:

What is capable of stealing away your heart, your commitment, your values, your ministry?

Be alert for these.

But what, in the midst of uncertainty, can rob you of hope?

Be alert for this too.

Are you thinking of choosing the easier option of preaching on the more comfortable visions in the Old Testament reading?

Be aware of making comfortable choices when it comes to preaching, without making connections.

I offer three questions to ponder in the coming week as we prepare for Advent:

1, Are we ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Can we use this season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christ’s coming not just as a cuddly child in a crib but as the triumphant king?

3, Do the ways we live our lives reflect the values of an over-commercialised shopping season, or reflect the values of the kingdom of the coming Christ, who puts all wrongs to right, who puts to an end all miseries and sufferings?

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24: 36) … ‘The Congregation of All Angels with Christ,’ an icon by a nun from the Monastery of Saint Irene near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 24: 36-44 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.'

‘Almighty God, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness’ (The Advent Collect) … darkness falls on the streets of Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Violet

The Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve.

Collect of the Word:

Faithful God,
whose promises stand unshaken
through all generations: renew us in hope,
that we may be awake and alert
watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ,
our Judge and Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Liturgical resources for Advent:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

These additional liturgical resources are provided for Advent in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

‘Behold, the mountain of the Lord’ (Hymn 118) ... ‘The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains’ (Isaiah 2: 2) … a peak-top monastery in Meteroa in central Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Suggested Hymns:

Isaiah 2: 1-5:

118, Behold, the mountain of the Lord
501, Christ is the world’s true light
263, Crown him with many crowns
496, For the healing of the nations
538, O Lord, the clouds are gathering
539, Rejoice, O land, in God thy might
509, Your kingdom come, O God!

Psalm 122:

683, All people that on earth do dwell
670, Jerusalem the golden
506, Pray that Jerusalem may have

Romans 13: 11-14:

549, Dear Lord and Father of mankind
74, First of the week and finest day
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding
487, Soldiers of Christ arise
488, Stand up, stand up for Jesus

Matthew 24: 36-44:

119, Come, thou long-expected Jesus
127, Hark what a sound, and too divine for hearing
132, Lo! he comes with clouds descending
140, The Lord will come and not be slow
145, You servants of the Lord

‘You know what time it is’ (Romans 13: 11) … ‘For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’ (Matthew 24: 44) … noontime in Liverpool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).

‘They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’ (Matthew 24: 39) … gondolas tied up in the Acqua Alta at the Rialto Bridge in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday, 18 November 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 24 November 2019,
The Kingship of Christ

Christ the King depicted in the reredos in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 24 November 2019, is the Sunday before Advent, which the Calendar of the Church of Ireland celebrates as the Kingship of Christ.

The Revised Common Lectionary, as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland, provides two sets of readings for this Sunday, the Continuous readings and the Paired readings.

The Continuous Readings: Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Canticle: Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1: 11–20; Luke 23: 33-43. There is a link to the Continuous Readings HERE.

The Paired Readings: Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43. There is a link to the Continuous Readings HERE.

Sunday 24 November 2019 is also being marked in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe as Mission Sunday, when the mission focus is on the Tearfund Ireland Project that supports work with Syrian children between the ages of 6 and 14 who are refugees in Lebanon. These children are not attending school because of the lack of facilities and pressure of numbers.

Christ the King and the mission of the Church … a stained-glass window in Peterborough Cathedral with a mission theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Introducing the Readings:

These readings, marking the last Sunday in Pentecost, also mark the last Sunday at the end of our journey in the Lectionary with Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. We will begin it all again the following Sunday, but this coming Sunday gives us time to pause and reflect on the fact that we have followed Christ for seven months or so through Saint Luke’s Gospel. We have seen Saint Luke’s distinctive emphases on the poor and their inclusion in the Kingdom, their inclusion among those not normally invited as guests to the great feasts.

In the Gospel reading, we are at the moment when Christ is crucified. The crucifixion is truly emphasised on Good Friday, but on Sunday morning the emphasis is on Christ the King and the request to him by one of the criminals to ‘remember me’ in the kingdom.

‘He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’ (Jeremiah 23: 5) … Christ the King in blessing, surrounded by figures representing the four Evangelists, at the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Michael, New Ross, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Jeremiah 23: 1-6:

In the previous chapters in this book, the Prophet Jeremiah made prophecies about four of the last five kings of Judah. Now, rather than predicting the fate of Zedekiah, the last of these kings, God now speaks through Jeremiah about an ideal future king.

Judah’s kings or shepherds are blamed for destroying and scattering the sheep and for driving them away. They will be punished for your evil doings.

However, God will gather the people back together again, and they will grow in numbers and prosper, and he will see that they are ruled by good kings or shepherds, so that they no longer live in fear or find they are in exile again.

This new kind of king will rule wisely, his reign will be marked by justice and righteousness, and the people (Judah and Israel) will be united.

Christ in Majesty … John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

Canticle: Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79):

Zechariah was struck mute when he heard that his wife Elizabeth was to give birth to a child in their old age. Later, she gave birth to a son, and his parents have brought him to be circumcised and named.

Elizabeth has favoured the name John, and when Zechariah agrees with her he is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ his speech returns and he speaks ‘this prophecy,’ the song or canticle we know as Benedictus (Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 107-108, 122). The name comes from the Latin for the opening word of Zechariah’s song, ‘Blessed’ (verse 68).

Zechariah recalls God’s blessings to ‘his people.’ While the verbs in translations are in the past tense, the present is equally appropriate. The tense in Greek shows how God characteristically acts and what he is inaugurating in Christ.

God is to give his people one who will save them from their enemies and from all who hate them. This fulfils the promises made to Abraham and others in the past that they would be rescued from their enemies so that they could serve God in holiness and righteousness.

The child who is blessed in this canticle is Saint John the Baptist. He will be the prophet of the most high, although people who first heard Zechariah may have thought then of Elijah, not knowing yet of the mission of Christ as the long-expected and long-promised ‘mighty saviour.’

John’s mission will be to prepare the way for the Lord, going before him, letting them know of the promise of salvation and forgiveness. Those who live in fear and under threat are promised a new way of living and new life in God’s kingdom, when God’s reign ushers in a time of peace.

Christ the King depicted in a mosaic in a side chapel in Westminster Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Colossians 1: 11-20:

The Epistle to the Colossians was written, according to the text, by the Apostle Paul and Saint Timothy to the Church in Colossae, a small Phrygian city near Laodicea and about 160 km from Ephesus in Asia Minor.

The author or authors have heard how his readers have trust in Christ and of their hope of eternal life. In the face of opposition from false teachers within the Church, Saint Paul prays that God will make them strong so that they are prepared to endure everything. He reminds them how God has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into Christ’s kingdom, where we find redemption and forgiveness.

The second part of this reading (verses 15-20) is a hymn praising Christ as the king of this kingdom, listing his royal attributes in poetic form.

Christ is described here as the icon (εἰκών, eikon) of the invisible God: when we look at Christ, we see what God is like. Everything in creation, in heaven and on earth, has been created through him, from angels to humans, rulers and their subjects.

Christ is the head of the Church, the firstborn, the source of life and growth, the beginning of life and creation. ‘In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’

Eric Gill’s last work is the Crucifixion in the Chapel of Saint George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral, showing he Crucified Christ as Christ the King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Luke 23: 33-43:

This Gospel reading may seem out of sequence as we approach Advent and prepare for Christmas. However, the Crucifixion is one of the ways in which we see Christ revealed to the world as King, for the Crucifixion is his triumph rather than his defeat, and it leads not to our death but to his Resurrection and our promise of life.

Christ has been betrayed, arrested, mocked, beaten and sentenced to death. He has walked to Calvary, ‘the place that is called the Skull,’ accompanied by Simon of Cyrene, who helped him to carry his cross, two criminals and a some soldiers who crucified him.

On the Cross, Christ continues his ministry of giving forgiveness to those who do not know what they are doing. The division of his clothing fulfils the prophecy in Psalm 22: 18. To be deprived of one’s clothing in the Bible is to lose one’s identity, as happened to prisoners, slaves, prostitutes and damned people.

The mob contemplates what is happening, but the leaders scoff at the Crucified Christ. In an image that draws on Psalm 69: 21, the soldiers offer Christ ‘sour wine,’ which is to have the effect of reviving him and to prolonging his agony on the Cross.

Ironically, the two titles Christ is mocked with – ‘Messiah of God, his chosen one’ and ‘King of the Jews’ – are both true. He refuses to subvert God’s plan by saving himself from a horrible death. One of the two criminals joins with the mob, challenging Jesus to save himself. However, the other criminal responds positively: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Only a king can offer pardon. Christ assures this second criminal of the immediate promise of a place with him in Paradise.

Three royal crowns for Christ the King … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reflecting on the Gospel Reading:

Three points emerge in this Gospel reading.

First, we note the passage in general functions as a ‘last temptation of Christ’ (verses 33-39).

Second, we see the recognition by the evildoer of Christ’s kingdom (verse 42).

Thirdly, we are challenged to accept that today, this day, σήμερον (símeron), this very day, is the time to respond to the claims the kingdom makes on us (verse 43).

When we think of the Christ’s last temptation, we may think of either The Last Temptation of Christ, the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, or the film, or about the story at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, when he was tempted by Satan into taking a series of short-cuts to glory (see Luke 4: 1-13).

Just as there were three temptations in the wilderness, so there are three of them in this passage. In Luke 4, there was only one speaker – the devil. But in this passage we are introduced to three separate groups or individuals who verbally abuse or challenge Christ: the leaders, the soldiers and the criminals or thieves. Each of them challenges Christ on the same point that the devil made in chapter 4: ‘if indeed you are so great (or are the Messiah or the King of the Jews), you will save yourself out of this predicament.’

Perhaps the temptation here for Christ to act in some way to ‘save himself’ might even be more compelling than it was in Luke 4. First, Luke skilfully uses language that puts Christ’s trials here in the Biblical context of unjust suffering. In verse 35 the high priests are said to ‘mock’ him (ἐξεμυκτήριζον, exemuktérizon), they hold up their noses in derision. This extremely rare verb is used in one other place in this Gospel: Luke 16: 14, where ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him’ (ἤκουον δὲ ταῦτα πάντα οἱ Φαρισαῖοι φιλάργυροι ὑπάρχοντες καὶ ἐξεμυκτήριζον αὐτόν).

The same word is used in Psalm 22, where those who stand around the oppressed person ‘mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads’ (Psalm 22: 7).

In that Psalm, the people say:

‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’ (verse 8).

Christ’s suffering and derision here is now placed in the context of another significant Biblical sufferer. Will God now rescue him or will he use his powers to get himself out of this predicament?

Of course, the temptation is even greater because Christ is at the end of his ministry. By having three successive groups of people – the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal – not recognise who he is, the temptation might have been to think his life’s work has been useless. Many people die in near-despair because they feel that all their efforts to effect change are in vain. Christ has spent his entire public ministry doing good, teaching and healing, calling people back to God. If he knew that he did not get through even to the disciples (see Luke 18: 34), how much less might he get through to anyone else.

But true majesty and the genius of power are revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice here is not to gratify their requests.

Instead, he displays supreme majesty, for he ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him …’ (Philippians 2: 6-9).

The World War I window by Henry Holiday in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, depicts Christ the King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Preparing for Christ’s coming

This Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence on Sunday morning. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Good Friday and Easter. But we forget that so easily. I hear on all the radio chat shows people already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started. In Britain, people are even talking about a Christmas election, rather than an Advent election.

But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.

We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.

Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.

It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.

It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.

It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.

But those sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.

That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings that remind us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

A window depicting Christ the King in Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Feast of Christ the King

I know of few Anglican churches dedicated to Christ the King, apart from the Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, which is now used by Forward in Faith.

Marking the Kingship of Christ on the Sunday before Advent, the Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation. At the end of 1925, Pope Pius XI published a papal encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in Western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

The World War II window by Gerald ER Smith in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, shows the Risen Christ in Glory and illustrates the canticle ‘Te Deum’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The end of the Church Year

Putting the Christmas trees up too early or hanging up the lights and frosting the windows ahead of Advent do not help to encourage a true Christmas spirit because they help us forget what Advent is all about.

Christ comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large department store or brand shop in one of our towns or cities.

Marking the Sunday before Advent by crowning Christ as King helps us to focus on Advent from the following Sunday, and Advent is supposed to be a time and a season of preparing for the coming of Christ.

Kingship may not be a good role model in this part of the island or for people living in modern democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. Let me share three examples:

● We are familiar with a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and appears aloof and remote on the other hand, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.
● In other northern European countries, the model of monarchy is portrayed in the media by figureheads who are slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that threaten to rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.
● Or, take recently deposed emperors: Halie Selassie, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa, who died in 1996, was a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

Is it any wonder that some modern translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor?

This morning, the Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King.

The sculpture of Christ the King on the tympanum in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Searching questions

Discussing how the Lectionary can at times seem to provide readings that are incongruous or out of season, Canon Giles Fraser – who resigned as Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s because of the cathedral’s response to the Occupy protests – wrote in the Church Times some years ago [4 November 2011]: ‘For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal workings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex discussions about the relationship between financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry.’

Describing how the Lectionary can be a cruel mistress, he recalls that the Evensong readings set for what was his last sermon in Saint Paul’s Cathedral included: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’ (Luke 6: 20, 25).

He argues that the ‘whole point of having a lectionary is that it obliges the preacher not to avoid the hard bits of the Bible. Were the readings up to me, I would have chosen something much safer. But that is the whole point of having a lectionary: it stops you retreating into safety. There are some things that just must stay on the agenda, however uncomfortable.’

Christ the King of Kings and Great High Priest … an icon from Mount Athos on a wall in the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


This Gospel reading for the Sunday before Advent challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.

The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.

Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.

As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.

We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.

Christ Crucified and in Majesty … a Crucifix in the Emmaus Retreat Centre, Swords, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 23: 33-43:

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [34 Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38 There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Christ the King … a stained glass window in Saint Ia’s Church in St Ives, Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White (see Book of Common Prayer, p 62; and the Church of Ireland Directory; Green for the weekdays that follow (Ordinary Time, Year C).

The Collect of the Day:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Collect for Mission:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of the Word:

Eternal God,
you exalted Jesus Christ to rule over all things,
and have made us instruments of his kingdom:
by your Spirit empower us to love the unloved,
and to minister to all in need,
then at the last bring us to your eternal realm
where we may be welcomed into your everlasting joy
and may worship and adore you for ever:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reign with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that plenteously bearing the fruit of good works
they may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer (Mission):

Eternal Giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom.
Confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A statue of Christ the King outside the parish church in Broadford, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Suggested Hymns:

Jeremiah 23: 1–6:

250, All hail the power of Jesus’ name
135, O come, O come, Emmanuel
442, Praise the Lord, rise up rejoicing
197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
323, The God of Abraham praise
20, The King of love my shepherd is

Canticle ‘Benedictus’ (Luke 1: 68–79):

685, Blessed be the God of Israel
52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
119, Come, thou long–expected Jesus
381, God has spoken – by his prophets
706, O bless the God of Israel

Jeremiah 23: 1-6:

250, All hail the power of Jesus’ name
135, O come, O come, Emmanuel
442, Praise the Lord, rise up rejoicing
197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
323, The God of Abraham praise
20, The King of love my shepherd is

Psalm 46:

608, Be still and know that I am God
325, Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here
646, Glorious things of thee are spoken
668, God is our fortress and our rock
12, God is our strength and refuge
92, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
211, Immortal love for ever full
95, Jesu, priceless treasure
659, Onward, Christian soldiers

Colossians 1: 11-20:

84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
220, Glory be to Jesus
27, God, who stretched the spangled heavens
160, Hark! the herald–angels sings
94, In the name of Jesus
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
303, Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing
619, Lord, teach us how to pray aright
103, O Christ, the same, through all our story’s pages
172, O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles)
60, O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace
363, O Lord of heaven and earth and sea
306, O Spirit of the living God
675, Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
487, Soldiers of Christ, arise
212, The God of Abraham praise
9, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
344, When morning gilds the skies

Luke 23: 33-43:

396, According to thy gracious word
215, Ah, holy Jesu, how hast thou offended
642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
400, And now, O Father, mindful of the love
459, For all the saints who from their labours rest (verses 1-2, 5-7)
90, Hail Redeemer, King divine
268, Hail, thou once–despisèd Jesus
221, Hark! the voice of love and mercy
417, He gave his life in selfless love
210, Holy God of righteous glory
574, I give you all the honour
617, Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom
698, Jesus, Saviour of the world
275, Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious
429, Lord Jesus Christ, you have come to us
554, Lord Jesus, think on me
456, Lord, you give the great commission
277, Love’s redeeming work is done
227, Man of sorrows! What a name
228, Meekness and majesty
231, My song is love unknown
102, Name of all majesty
673, O Christ, our hope, our heart’s desire
235, O sacred head, sore wounded
557, Rock of ages, cleft for me
239, See Christ was wounded for our sake
241, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
444, Soul of my Saviour, sanctify my breast
285, The head that once was crowned with thorns
243, The royal banners forward go
244, There is a green hill far away
114, Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
245, To mock your reign, O dearest Lord
491, We have a gospel to proclaim

The East Window depicting Christ the King in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).

The tympanum of the portal at Westminster Cathedral shows in a Byzantine-style mosaic Christ as the enthroned Pantocrator (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Monday, 11 November 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 17 November 2019,
Second Sunday before Advent

‘There will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’ (Luke 21: 11) … sunset in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 17 November 2019, is the Second Sunday before Advent.

There are two sets of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland, the continuous readings and the paired readings.

The Paired Readings: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Canticle: Song of Isaiah; II Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5-19. There is a link to the paired readings HERE.

The Continuous Readings: Malachi 4: 1-2a; Psalm 98; II Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5-19. There is a link to the continuous readings HERE.

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified’ (Luke 21: 9) … the Battle of Britain Monument memorial on the Victoria Embankment in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Introducing the Readings:

Sunday’s readings may give us the opportunity to ask how we maintain our Christian values in the face of opposition or even persecution, in the face of dreadful world events.
A problem that continues to dominate parish priorities is the emphasis on buildings rather than people. Are there ‘building blocks’ we need to knock down so we can start again and care for little people like the poor widow in the story preceding the Gospel reading who is passed over in the lectionary editing of this reading? (see Luke 21: 1-4).

Is it time to rebuild, to become the kind of temples God really wants?

Should we change church politics and priorities for God’s politics and priorities?

In pursuing God’s vision for the future of the church and the Kingdom, are we relying on our own knowledge and strengths?

What risks are we willing to take for our core values?

How would you be prophetic and offer hope in the face of the current economic ‘earthquake’ we are facing in Britain and Ireland after Brexit?

How do you read the signs of the times when it comes to global events?

Have you a vision for a new heaven and a new earth (see Isaiah 65: 17-25)?

How do you balance concerns for the wider world with those for the widow and her small coin in your parish?

How would you relate the Gospel reading to the Epistle reading (II Thessalonians 3: 6-13) and keeping away from believers who do not remain true to the essentials of faith?

‘I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy’ (Isaiah 65: 18) … ‘The Holy City,’ Thetis Blacker (1927-2006), in the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, Limehouse, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Isaiah 65: 17-25:

This reading brings a promise of a new creation, ‘new heavens and a new earth,’ in which the past sinfulness of the people will be forgotten (verse 17). In new Jerusalem, the people will be glad and rejoice, and God will delight in the people.

There will be no more weeping or sorrow, no more crying or distress (verse 19). No longer will infants die soon after birth; instead, old people will know the promise of long life, so that 100-year-olds will be seen as young people. People will build houses, plant vineyards, enjoy the fruit of their labour, knowing their work is not in vain and their children shall prosper and be blessed (verses 20-23).

The tree in verse 22 may have evoked images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden although later Christian readers would see parallels with the Cross.

This peace will be so all-pervasive that the ‘wolf and the lamb shall feed together,’ the lion and the ox shall eat straw together. The new Jerusalem shall be so at peace that ‘shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (verse 25).

‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12: 3 … Saint James’s Well, in Nantenan, Co Limerick, is the oldest of only three wells in Co Limerick and is said to predate Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

‘The Song of Isaiah’:

Instead of a Psalm, the Lectionary suggests using the Canticle we know as ‘The Song of Isaiah’ (Isaiah 12: 2-6; see Canticle 23, the Book of Common Prayer, p 132).

Once again, we are told not to be afraid but to trust in God, who meets our every need, and who promises salvation and peace to the nations of the earth.

This too is a promise of the New Jerusalem, where all shall sing with joy.

‘We were not idle … and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it’ (II Thessalonians 3: 8) … bread in a shopfront in St Ives, Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

II Thessalonians 3: 6-13:

We have come to the end of this series of readings from Saint Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians.

The writer asks the members of the Church in Thessaloniki to avoid those who say they are Christians and who because they claim the end has come live a dissolute life, with moral abandon and receiving financial support from others without sharing the Christian message. Instead, they should imitate Saint Paul and the co-authors of this letter (Silvanus and Timothy). Although Saint Paul had the right to ask for financial support from the community, but instead he worked to earn a living and to support himself.

He is forceful when he says he has already warned that those in the community who refuse to work – the immoral group he has identified – should not be fed. If they continue in their wilful, erroneous ways, they should be avoided and put to shame.

‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’ (Luke 21: 5) … the ruins of a classical temple in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 21: 5-19:

The Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the closing the Sundays after Pentecost read like readings for Lent and preparation for Holy Week rather than readings for the weeks leading up to Advent. But Advent is a season of preparation for Christ coming among us as God incarnate, as our king, which we mark the following week with the Kingship of Christ (the Sunday before Advent, 24 November 2019).

This Gospel reading is a portion of the ‘little apocalypse,’ the last story about Christ teaching in the Temple (see Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13 and Luke 21). He foretells the destruction of the Temple, an episode that took place 40 years later.

It is also known as the Little Apocalypse because it includes the use of apocalyptic language, and it includes Christ’s warning to his followers that they will suffer tribulation and persecution before the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.

In the Gospels according to Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, Christ delivers this discourse to his disciples privately on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple. In Saint Luke’s Gospel, he teaches over a period of time in the Temple and stays at night on the Mount of Olives.

In Christ’s time, people worried when the world would end, and wondered what signs would indicate ‘this is about to take place.’

Christ begins to answer these questions by drawing on the Prophets (Micah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Joel) and Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time (such as 2 Esdras). However, he tells them that ‘the end will not follow immediately’ (v. 9), and then diverts to issues that matter then and now: wars, earthquakes, famines, global health, the betrayal and persecution of people who suffer because of their religious beliefs, and how people should respond to these happenings (verse 12-19).

He encourages his followers to endure, for it is not the calamitous events of the future that future but the faith and values we hold on to, no matter what the cost may be.

The Revd Dr Charles Eric Funston is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church who was the Rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, until at the end of 2018. Recently, as he was preparing to preach on the ‘little apocalypse’ next Sunday, he thought, ‘What if Jesus was being sarcastic in that first part?’

This passage is always read as if Christ is predicting wars and earthquakes, and saying those precursors of the end must be preceded by tribulation, persecution and martyrdom. This approach provides a basis for the nonsense that has become known as ‘Rapture Theology.’

But Dr Funston wonders whether ‘we are missing a change of tone of voice in this passage.’ He asks, ‘What if that first part is not a prediction, but a snarky, sarcastic ‘Yeah. Right,’ about his contemporaries’ apocalyptic predictions, which is then followed up with a ‘Get real!’ instruction?’

He points out in the original Greek of this Gospel, the first part of the reading is written in the aorist, while the second part is written in the imperative. Greek playwrights often used the aorist when writing sarcastic dialogue.

It is difficult to convey emotion through the printed page and even more difficult in translations. We often fail to identify sarcasm or irony in Scripture. But they are found throughout the Gospels, including the story of Christ’s dialogue with the Syro-Phoenician woman.

So, Eric Funstone asks, ‘in all seriousness,’ what if Christ is being sarcastic in this reading? ‘What if he is not predicting, but rather ridiculing, notions of catastrophic end-times events and saying, ‘There’s more important stuff to do than worry about that nonsense’?’

Things to worry about today, of course, include wars between nations, earthquakes, climate change, famines, global sickness, poverty … and how we respond to those events in action that reflects our faith and prayer life.

‘The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another’ (Luke 21: 6) … the ruins of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Looking at the Gospel reading in detail:

Over the past few weeks, Christ, like Isaiah (50: 7) and Ezekiel (21: 1-2) in the Old Testament, has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9: 51), while his disciples, first in awe, then in shock, follow him on that road to Jerusalem and the Temple. This reading is from the last story about Christ teaching in the Temple.

In between our Gospel readings for the Fourth Sunday before Advent, 3 November (Luke 19: 1-10) and for the Third Sunday before Advent, 10 November (Luke 20: 27-38), the Lectionary readings have skipped past Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the ‘whole multitude … began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” ’ (Luke 19: 38).

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Christ weeps, invokes sayings from Jeremiah against a city that ‘did not recognise the time of your visitation from God’ (Luke 19: 41-44), and then faces up to three attempts by the authorities to entrap him, each concluding with Christ silencing his opponents (Luke 20: 1-19; 20: 20-26; and 20: 27-38), the third of which we looked at last week.

Setting the scene

The scene has been set in the verses in this chapter that immediately precede this reading. Christ is sitting by the Temple Treasury, where he watches the poor widow offer the smallest of coins (verses 1-4).

The scene does not change as he goes on to speak about the Temple, the Nation, and the looming future. But, instead of questioning him about what he has just said about this widow, which might have offered a focus for how the politics of God work, those around him, probably a wider group than just his own disciples, cannot get past the physical presence and appearance of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, then revered as a sign of God’s presence, even as the dwelling place of God’s sheltering protection for Israel (see Luke 13:34-35).

The coming of God’s reign

Christ is no longer facing attacks from others. Instead, he alerts his followers to the hardships they face ahead, beyond the time of his journey. But as he approached Jerusalem, Christ had declared that God’s ‘visitation’ had come with his reign, that the very stones of the Temple would testify against those who rejected him (19: 41-44).

Now he again predicts that all the stones will be thrown down (21: 6), as one scene in the divine drama.

A web of prophetic citations is woven through these verses. These include words and phrases from Jeremiah 4, 7, 14, and 21; Isaiah 19; and Ezekiel 14 and 38. Maybe we could say that Christ, like the prophets before him, was not very original in what he said. But there is still the question: how faithfully did these prophetic words and warnings of destruction speak to the people of the time, to the people who heard Christ speak?

But Christ also differentiates his teaching from the teaching of the false prophets, who also quoted the ancient words of God. While announcing the coming judgment, Christ cautions against following prophets who claim to know God’s timetable, even invoking Christ’s own name.

The account in this chapter of Christ’s words could be compared with Mark 13, and its intensity of the coming ‘tribulation.’ Or we might go back to Luke 17: 22-37, which also reminds us that Christ’s death is an integral part of God’s timetable: ‘But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation’ (17: 25). Saint Luke’s longer account of Christ’s discourse (21: 5-36) assures his readers they are experiencing not ‘the end’ … but the period of ‘tribulations’ or ‘persecutions’ through which believers will enter the kingdom (see Acts 14: 22).

And so, Saint Luke’s account of Christ’s speech does not provide yet another programme or timetable to predict the working out of God’s plan, down to the last second. The prophets and Christ teach us that the struggles in history and in disturbances in nature are more than accidental. They remind us that God triumphed over chaos in creating the natural world, and yet both human and supra-historical forces are still contending for the earth. Christ’s followers are aware, therefore, that his death and resurrection is God’s ultimate act in a struggle of cosmic proportions. Only the final outcome is sure.

The gift and strength of endurance

As the Apostle Paul testifies: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, be we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8: 22-23).

The hope to which Christ testifies in this passage, therefore, is no trivial denial of the struggles, the pain and agony of human life, or the catastrophic forces of nature. These are real, and the prophets of old have interpreted such devastations as the context of God’s saving work. Christ joins this chorus, bringing it close to the concrete realities of early Christians. But he says: ‘This will give you an opportunity to testify’ (verse 13) and ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’ (verse 19).

The ‘opportunity to testify’ does not require Christ’s followers to know every answer to the question: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people.’

Christ is promising that he will give us ‘words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’ His earlier promise of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in times of testimony (see Luke 12: 11-12) now becomes his own promise. When he commissions them as ‘my witnesses’ (Acts 1: 8), he assures them of the power and the presence of his Holy Spirit, and the stories in Acts will display the fulfilment of this promise of God’s ‘mouth and wisdom’ (see Acts 4: 13-14; 16: 6-7). And so, even these harsh prophecies in Luke 21 are filled with the confidence of Christ’s enduring presence.

And the ‘endurance’ that ‘will gain your soul’ (verse 19) is also not mere heroic persistence.

The early Christians knew all about endurance, and that endurance was often tested. Paul echoes that theme in Romans 5: 3-5, then transformed this endurance from reliance on human strength to trusting in God’s love: ‘… we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Saving endurance is a gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 6:

Christ foretells the destruction of the Temple (‘all will be thrown down’). This event took place some 40 years in the future. At that time, Roman legions (‘armies,’ see verse 20) surrounded the city.

Verse 7:

In Christ’s time, people were concerned about when the world would end, and what signs would indicate ‘this is about to take place.’

Verses 7-11:

Christ begins to answer, in terms drawn from the prophets, including Micah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Joel, and from apocalyptic literature of the time, such as II Esdras. ‘The time’ (verse 8) is the time chosen by God for the end of the era. He then adds ‘the end will not follow immediately’ (verse 9).

Verses 12-19:

Christ then diverts to issues that matter now: the treatment his followers will receive, and how they should react to it

They will be treated as he has been: they will be accused of heresy in ‘synagogues,’ brought before civil courts (‘kings and governors’) and sent to prison.

Verse 13:

On these occasions, they should take it as ‘an opportunity to testify,’ for testimony (verse 13, μαρτύριον), to tell the good news, we might even read into it to be martyrs.

Verse 14:

They should be themselves, and not act out a role. The Greek word translated ‘prepare … in advance’ (προμελετάω, verse 14) literally means to practise as in to practise a gesture or rehearse a dance.

Verses 16-17:

To follow Christ entails suffering and betrayal and being ‘hated.’

Verse 19:

Perseverance under duress will gain you eternal life.

‘War’ by Richard Klingbeil (2009), original acrylic on canvas, 22 x 28 … along with Titanium White, the artist used only two colours, Prussian Blue and Burnt Sienna

Luke 21: 5-19 (NRSVA):

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8 And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.’

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified’ (Luke 21: 9) … a protest in Parliament Square, Westminster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Times, Year C)

The Collect of the Day:

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 and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Collect of the Word:

Almighty God,
you sent your Son Jesus Christ
to be the light of the world.
Free us from all that darkens and ensnares us,
and brings us to eternal light and joy:
through the power of him
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope.
Bring us at the last to that pure life for which we long,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

‘Christ is our Christ is our corner-stone’ (Hymn 327) … a cross on a cornerstone in the Monastery of Vlatadon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Suggested hymns:

Isaiah 65: 17-25:

49, Lord, bring the day to pass
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
292, Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

The Canticle, ‘The Song of Isaiah’ (Isaiah 12: 1-6):

370, Stand up and bless the Lord
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

Malachi 4: 1-2a:

52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
37, Come, ye thankful people, come
324, God, whose almighty word
160, Hark! the herald-angels sing
128, Hills of the north, rejoice
535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour
199, The people that in darkness walked

Psalm 98:

146, A great and mighty wonder
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come
705, New songs of celebration render
710, Sing to God new songs of worship
369, Songs of praise the angels sang

II Thessalonians 3: 6-13:

523, Help us to help each other, Lord
436, Now let us from this table rise
446, Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
498, What does the Lord require for praise and offering?

Luke 21: 5-19:

10, All my hope on God is founded
327, Christ is our corner-stone
52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
496, For the healing of the nations
15, If thou but suffer God to guide thee

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified’ (Luke 21: 9) … ‘Humanity’s Contempt for Humanity,’ Peter Walker (2015), sculpture in an exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral last year marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).