Last week the moderator of the Church of Scotland challenged the Kirk to find 100,000 new members by 2025. His wish has been deemed ambitious; by some, even over-ambitious. One of several ways suggested to achieve this outcome is by redefining the membership; another one is by reaching out through the internet. His proposals have been scorned by the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, who suggested kicking out non-believers and purging the Kirk’s membership rolls. You might wonder why I’m talking about the row between two leaders of the Protestant churches. Well, it’s definitely not to make myself feel superior or complacent, because we face a pretty similar problem here, in our Church. I’d call the problem ‘discontinuity’.
A couple of minutes ago we heard the opening line of St Mark’s gospel: The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ So, it is a new story that has just begun; an absolute novelty. But then the second sentence recalls a prophecy spelled out some 500 years earlier, ascribed to the prophet Isaiah. The fulfilment of that prophecy is John the Baptist, announcing someone more powerful following him, namely Jesus. This very compact beginning of St Mark’s gospel clearly shows the long-term continuity of God revealing himself to the people of Israel; from Abraham, through Moses, then kings, priests and prophets all the way through to John the Baptist, a messenger of God, rooted in the Old Testament but leaving his mark on the New Era. Then Jesus takes over as the ultimate fulfilment of all the prophecies, only to send out his followers to preach the Good News, duly done by St Mark, and by many others. The message has travelled spatially, reaching practically every corner of the earth, as well as in time, passed down from one generation to another all the way to our own times. But now we experience a painful generation gap, widening with each passing year. The Discontinuity.
Bigger brains than mine have been pondering this situation, looking for its causes and possible solutions. Their views have been even wider than the gap between church-goers and non-goers. The main problem is that there isn’t any single or indeed dominant reason for the absence of so many people. I can find some similarities between the current state of affairs and the Babylonian exile as recalled indirectly by today’s first reading. After Jerusalem had been captured and its Temple destroyed by the Babylonian Empire, most of the Jewish nation was deported to Babylon and banned from returning, with only uneducated peasants left behind. Without the Temple, a thousand miles away from their homeland, and with no prospect of returning, they had to settle down and live on in a foreign country. The greatest dangers to their national and religious identity were the relative comfort and liberty they enjoyed. Younger generations took their chances, and some of them even managed to take up high-ranking posts in the imperial governing bodies. Without the Temple as their focal point, and attracted by immediate gains, the new generations were losing interest in keeping up the old traditions. When, fifty years later, a Persian king allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city with its Temple, there weren’t many ready to make a long and dangerous journey into the unknown, leaving their settled lives behind. Their apprehension was a challenge to their religious leaders, the prophets. The biblical passage in today’s first reading was an encouragement to trust in God’s caring presence and assistance, and to take up the challenge of the journey.
But a much more significant impact of those years in exile was the completely new model of worship developed in the absence of the Temple: a decentralised network of meeting houses – synagogues. The model included places and ways of preserving the Jewish religion while surrounded by Babylonian cults which were somehow more attractive. The synagogues were mini-focal points for small local Jewish communities. Without going to the Temple that was no more, the Jewish families managed to pass on their religion and their traditions to new generations. In such a way, their religion not only survived but eventually flourished when the people returned to their homeland.
Many of you feel unhappy about seeing your children and grandchildren not going to Church and seeming to abandon the Faith you keep dear in your heart. Some of you blame yourselves for the failure. Others blame the Church, or the times, or the modern culture… Undoubtedly new times create new challenges to faith, and undoubtedly the current cultural climate hardly helps to keep the faith. I feel the same pain and anxiety, and blame myself when someone disappears from the Church. But we shouldn’t give up hope, because the call from both the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist is still in force: ‘Here is the Lord coming with power; someone who is more powerful than I am.’ Our job today is simply this one: ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord.’