At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.
" Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
(Luke 13: 31-35)
I conduct a lot of funerals. 99% of them are for men and women who I have never met. People often say to me, “That must be the most difficult part of your job, surely it’s very distressing?” The truth is though, that it is rarely upsetting. In fact, quite often I enjoy doing a funeral. It is usually a great honour to come alongside people in their time of bereavement and surprisingly there is often joy involved as well as sadness. Of course, there are times when funerals are very distressing. If somebody dies tragically or too young then there is a lot of distress and anger, but such occasions are thankfully quite rare. Usually the person who has died has reached a good age and their family and friends are already prepared for their death. In these cases there seems to be one thing that makes the difference between the subsequent funeral being an upsetting time or a time of celebration of life. The difference is whether the person lived a fulfilled life or an apparently wasted life. I did a funeral once where the person who had died was such a difficult person that even her neighbour who looked after her during her final years could not find a good word to say about her. On top of this this lady never left her home, she had no friends and no interests in life other than her cigarettes. In cases like this life can come across as seemingly pointless and the funeral can be very depressing. However, on many other occasions, I have conducted the funerals of people who have lived full and active lives, lives full of love and happiness. These are people who are missed by their friends, these are people who have given more to life than they have taken out. In these cases their lives and their deaths do not seem pointless and with the mourners I am able to celebrate their lives.
Life is a precious commodity. We are only here for a short time in the overall scheme of things and all of us, deep down, know that life is not to be wasted. So quite often we find ourselves wondering what our life's purpose might be, or even whether our life actually has any purpose? We all do this, and never more so than when we come face to face with death, whether it is our own or someone else's. Shakespeare's Macbeth, when he was told of his wife's death, declared that life was idiotic and pointless. He said,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth V iv 24-28)
According to Macbeth, our life, with all its richness of emotion, spirituality and humanity, all its years of learned wisdom and experience, means nothing.
In his circumstances within the play this may be an understandable conclusion, but there is something beyond it. Extreme situations don't have to bring despair – they can also bring recognition of the real purpose of our life. We can realise that it is not that our life is pointless, but that we are missing the point. There are times when we suddenly see that we are investing our time and energy in things that, at the end of the day, are unimportant. A young mother, diagnosed with breast cancer, once said to me, "I've learnt what really matters in life now. And it has nothing to do with keeping my house spotless and cooking perfect meals."
Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and death, also knew what really mattered. He knew and understood exactly who he was, what he was doing and where he was going: "I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." His mind was focused on something far greater than the immediate danger. He was so clear about his goal that nothing would sway him from it.
"But you will be killed if you go any further," protested the Pharisees, and Jesus did not deny it. His retort to Herod was not a dare: he wasn't saying, "catch me if you can! I'm not scared of you!" He was very scared: he was young – he didn't want to die, and he knew he was going to. For whatever else he was, Jesus certainly never stopped being human.
Jesus' sense of purpose was not fueled by blind fanaticism. His mind was focused, yes, but not in a way that blinded him to the other people or that left him out of touch with reality or with himself. Approaching a frightening death, hurt by Jerusalem's rejection of him, sorrowful beyond measure at their refusal to be saved, he continued to reach out to people, to listen to their needs and to heal them. And in doing so he was not denying anything of what he felt but was remaining absolutely true and open to God, to himself and to everyone around him.
Jesus was clear about the purpose of his life because he was so closely in touch with God. In Paul's words, Jesus' mind was not set on earthly things, but on heavenly ones. That is not to say that Jesus "was so heavenly minded to be no earthly use", but that his mind was fixed on God in a way that coloured his whole attitude to the things of the earth. His earthly use, if you like, was entirely defined by his heavenly-mindedness.
When I was studying for my degree at Nottingham University one of my tutors of New Testament theology was an atheist. He had no belief in the divine whatsoever. But he also, firmly believed that Jesus had lived and that much about the three years of his ministry could be discerned from the synoptic Gospels. It was his considered opinion that Jesus did know that he would be crucified in Jerusalem. Not because he had supernatural powers of prophesy but because, just with a human mind, he would have worked out exactly where his actions would take him.
Now, there is something very important that we need to bear in mind here. The terrible things that happened to Jesus at the end of his life were the result of human actions. They were not engineered by God. If we believe that God would do such a thing we end up worshipping a god who is nothing less than a heartless monster. God's part in Christ's story was to redeem the evil done to his son by raising him from the dead and through that, bringing people into his kingdom.
Most people have periods in their life when all they can see ahead of them is darkness. It may be the terminal illness of a loved one or personal illness. It may be financial problems. It may be work related as it is with me at the moment. I have gone from asking two people, last September, to get together with me to choose the hymns for Sunday morning, although I could have insisted on choosing them all myself, to being unemployed and unsalaried in a couple of months time. In fact, I received my notice of dismissal, in writing, from the bishop, yesterday. Along the way I saw my greatest dream, to be vicar of the parish I have loved and served for the last ten years, completely dashed on the rocks. The bishop told me not to get involved directly with sorting the mess out but to leave everything up to the church wardens. The archdeacon told me not to talk to any of you about what was going on. My hands were tied. All I could do was watch my personal Jerusalem heading towards me. There was nothing I could do about it.
I do not blame God for any of this. Whatever, my life has in store for me, the nastiness of the last six months has absolutely nothing to do with God and everything to do with ordinary human beings.
However, although I do not believe for a moment that any of this was God's doing, as a Christian and as a priest, I strongly believe that God will redeem it. To put it bluntly, God will bring something good out of the unhappiness. I have to accept that this may not be for my benefit. It may be the church, you people, who receive a blessing because of what you have been through. Maybe it will be the new vicar whose life will be fulfilled by his or her appointment at this church.
I am not Jesus. I don't claim to have anywhere near the fortitude and faith that he possessed. But I do use his example to inform my attitude towards my own predicament. I have my own Jerusalem to face and it will be painful. It has been painful. However, something of God will be made possible because of it. Just as something of God was made possible through Christ's suffering.
We all need to set our minds on God, and not to keep them fixed on earthly things. One way to do that is to focus on the Jesus we find in the gospels. Perhaps for Lent we could read one of the gospels and for every episode we read about, ask three specific questions: firstly, how might I have reacted to this situation? Secondly, how did Jesus react? Thirdly, what does this tell me about Jesus and therefore about God?
We can write down our answers and use them to reflect on how we could become more like Christ, and so more aware of our life's purpose. We can be sure that our life does have a purpose purely because God has created us, and he calls everyone to live lives of real fulfilment in him.
Macbeth was wrong when he said that life is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing. However, Macbeth’s problem was that he could not see the power of love that fills the whole world. the main purpose of our lives is to love. To love God and to love our fellow human beings. Our life's author is God himself, and his meaning is always love. The funerals I conduct which are imbued with joy are the ones of people who have known love and who have given love to others. If they have achieved nothing else in life accept the love of their friends and family and of God, then they have achieved enough, because their love will carry them forward into a new life where they shall discover the reason for everything. However, those who turn their backs on love, turn their backs on God himself, because God is love, for them life is a waste of time, a tragic waste of time.
So it is very important that we encourage one another to find God’s loving purpose in our lives and to reflect God’s love in our own lives. It is so important because it is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.