Do not be deceived

Pentecost 25

Mark 13:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who alone can distinguish evil from good. Amen.

Some of you (especially those of you who have computers) may have heard or seen this quiz question. If so I apologise. The question goes something like this: It is time to elect a new world leader. There are three leading candidates. Candidate A associates with crooked politicians and consults with astrologers. He has had two mistresses; chain smokes and drinks 8 – 10 martinis a day. Candidate B has been kicked out of office twice previously, he sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks about a quart of whisky every evening. Candidate C is a decorated war hero. He is a vegetarian. He doesn’t smoke and drinks only an occasional beer. If you were voting, which of the three would be your choice?

If you chose A – the corrupt chain smoker – you would have been voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt – former president of the United States of America. Candidate B is Winston Churchill – the whisky drinker who can’t get up before noon and former Prime Minister of Great Britain. At first glance, squeaky clean Candidate C, appears to be the obvious choice. That is, until you discover that the vegetarian war hero is none other than Adolf Hitler former Chancellor of Germany. The quiz is designed to remind us that the difference between good and evil is not always evident on the surface and not easily measured by human standards. Each of the three candidates had serious flaws, but only one turned out to be megalomaniac who systematically killed any opponents and who sent more than six million people to the gas chambers.

Throughout the ages there have always been people who, by the sheer force of their personality or skill with words are able to sway whole groups of people – sometimes to do things that in other circumstances they would not do. Hitler was one such person. By all accounts he was an unattractive man with few obvious skills. He spoke badly and yet, through his angry bluster, he managed to capture the imagination of the German people after the First World War.

It is when things are not going so well that people are most vulnerable to the promises of another and most susceptible to the influence of a strong leader. This was certainly the case in post-war Germany. It is well-known that the Treaty of Versailles left that nation with huge debts and no opportunity to re-build. It also left the Germans with a deep sense of resentment. At the same time, the emergence of communism to the east and within Germany itself was, to some, a cause of concern. In 1930 four million Germans were unemployed. Hitler’s rhetoric spoke to the situation of the German people and gave them comfort, a sense of hope for the future and restored their national pride. Hitler united the nation against a common enemy – Marxism and Jews. He played on the fear and insecurity of the German people and, when he spoke, he created a sense of drama and power that held his listeners in his grip. He would arrive late to speaking engagements thus increasing the anticipation of the audience and when he finally arrived, he would wait for complete silence before he began, intensifying the illusion of authority and power.

Jesus knew only too well that, in times of persecution and stress people – including his disciples – are more ready to believe in someone who promises salvation. He knows or guesses what lies ahead for his followers, what trials or tribulations can be expected and he wants them to be prepared. So he warns them: “Many will come in my name saying: ‘I am he’ and many will be deceived.” If his followers feel threatened or disempowered, if the present feels untenable and the future seems bleak Jesus is conscious that his disciples will be looking for answers and will be susceptible to those who offer a solution. He knows that it will not be easy even for his closest friends to distinguish true from false, the Son of Man from any other messianic pretender.

The past century has borne witness to rise of many strong and persuasive characters whose presence and speech have been able to inspire and influence thousands of people from all walks of life. Like Hitler, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy encapsulated the spirit of the American people. Such was the power of their words that their speeches are still quoted and recognised today. Another great orator, Billy Graham drew enormous crowds to his meetings and through his passionate sermons and emotive hymns stirred deep feelings in his audience and convinced them to give their lives to Jesus.

For good or for evil people like Hitler, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King and JFK stirred the hearts and minds of their generations and drew from them an almost unquestioning loyalty and devotion, a willingness to go wherever they would lead. As Jesus recognised twenty centuries ago, distinguishing the good from the bad is not always as self-evident as we would like to believe. Good people, including the churches were taken in by Hitler and caught up by his ability to convince them that he and he alone could solve the problems that beset their nation, that only he could re-build their country, restore their self-respect and regain their position on the world stage.

What makes the difference between a Hitler and a Billy Graham? A Gandhi or a Mugabe? All of them use powerful and emotive speeches to tug at the heartstrings of their listeners and to hold them in the palm of their hands. Both were able, as it were, to bend others to their will. The reactions of the crowds who heard them were much the same, yet Hitler was a force for evil and Billy Graham a force for good (or at least not for harm). History has demonstrated how easy it is to be deceived, how readily we allow ourselves to be led astray and how difficult it is to clearly distinguish between a Hitler and a JFK. Past experience shows us that we are not always clear as to what ideals we should be persuaded and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that when we are moved by a powerful speaker that we are not always able to discriminate between what serves our own self-interest and what serves the greater good.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask him for a sign. In response he warns them to be cautious, not to be taken in by everyone who claims to have a hold on the truth. In its context, Jesus’ warning relates to the coming of the end, but it is a warning that holds true for every age and every situation. History has proven Jesus’ anxiety to be warranted – people, including his own followers are easily led astray.

As today’s gospel implies – there are no easy solutions, no quick fixes. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that life will go smoothly, just that Jesus will be with us. If and when we face trials and tribulations, we must be careful not to follow those who offer us a way out, but instead face all difficulties head on, confident that the Holy Spirit will not abandon us. Others may inspire us, some may persuade us, but only Jesus can lead us to where we are intended to go.

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