Embracing the Apocalypse

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Luke 12:49-56

And Jesus said to them, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time

 

As some of you know my hobby is to write novels.  Before you start to think, oh wow, our Vicar is so literary and talented as well as such a great priest (which I’m sure you’re all thinking right now!) I have to confess they are grisly horror.  My latest project is entitled “The Apocalypse will be Televised” – and its about the world ending in a wave of unstoppable violence.  They are not the kind of thing most churchgoers would enjoy!

            I am (and have been from childhood) fascinated by the apocalypse.  I am fascinated by ‘the Biblical Apocalypse,’ especially when interpreted by slightly insane fundamentalists or the makers of the 1976 horror film, The Omen.  I love the Apocalypses of John Wyndam’s Day of the Triffids and Cormac McCarthy’s heart-rending The Road.  I love the nuclear Apocalypses of Threads, Doctor Strangelove and Mad Max.  I especially love the Apocalypse of George Romero’s zombie films (to which my books owe a significant debt).

            Apocalyptic stories are enduringly popular, and extremely varied.  However, whether the apocalypse is called by the horsemen of the apocalypse, or the antichrist, or a mysterious diseases, or nuclear disaster, or robots, or carnivorous plants, or flesh-eating zombies… all these apocalypses have something in common.  It’s something so obvious that you might not thing it is worth mentioning:  They all see the Apocalypse as a bad thing!

            We may think, ‘of course it’s a bad thing’ – no one wants zombies to eat 95% of the human race!

            But the Jews of Jesus time had a very different view of the End of Days.  Our books and films are totally different from the Apocalypse as Jesus understood it.

            In our reading Jesus says ‘ I came to cast a fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’  To us that sounds horrible and disturbing (I hope!) but to Jesus hearers it would have been one of his few uncontroversial sayings.

            The ancient Jews had been slaves in Egypt, had less than half a century of peace in Israel before being invaded by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and in Jesus’ time – the Roman Empire.

            The Jews longed for the Last Judgement when God would lift up their lowly nation and strike down their mighty oppressors.  The Apocalypse was good news.  Jesus talks about fire; in Jewish thought fire was a symbol of judgement; Jesus is longing for Judgement Day.

            This was the kind of talk that Jesus’ followers would have expected of the Messiah: Judgement for the Roman oppressors & vindication for God’s chosen people.

            But then Jesus goes on to say ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with.’  The Greek ‘baptizein’ is not a religious work like our ‘Baptism;’ it just means ‘to dip’ or ‘to submerge.’  It could refer to a ship sinking beneath the waves; it was used to describe someone who was drunk – they were ‘submerged in wine.’

            Jesus knew what would happen to him if he fell into the hands of the religious and political leaders who were envious of his wisdom and fearful of his influence.  He was about to be submerged beneath the horror of humanity’s fear, insecurity, envy, jealousy, hatred and violence.

            Jesus longs for God to put right all the wrongs of the present age, but he has a word of warning that it’s not enough to observe the Jewish law, God will judge by our love and care for those in need.  Matthew 25 describes Judgement Day as a time when people are judged as if every act of kindness to those in need was an act of kindness to God, Godself.  God says to those found to be righteous:

 

       ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

 

            For Jesus power was not what the Zealots believed it was – not mighty armies gathering to defeat the Roman Empire.  True power is the power of love.

 

A bandit came into the camp of a Buddhist monk who was sitting by the fire – ‘I am the most powerful bandit in the country, give me all your money or I will kill you.’  The monk serenely replied, ‘you are welcome to the money, it belongs to you as much as to me, but I would like to see your power – can you chop down that thick branch with your sword?’  The bandit chopped off the branch with one mighty swing of his sword.  The monk did not flinch and added, ‘so now show me your power, can you put the branch back and heal the tree?’

The Bandit at one enrolled as a disciple of the monk.

 

            Power is not what the Zealots believed it was – power to kill & destroy…

            Jesus saw true power, the power to suffer and not give way to hate, the power to heal, to forgive, to make whole…  This is power, the power of God’s Kingdom

            This is not a wishy-washy vague ‘niceness’ this is a powerful challenge to the accepted order of things.

            Jesus is calling down the fire of God’s judgement to transform society but his pathway is not to inflict violence, but to sink under it.

            I give the last words to Desmond Tutu:

 

“There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.”

 

 

Deleted Scenes

Some quotes about the Apocalypse that I liked but didn’t use because the sermon went off in a different direction:

 

“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

 

“If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.”

― James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

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The Lord’s Prayer – A sermon by Margaret Offerman

A Sermon at the Church of the Ascension by Margaret Offerman

There are several pivotal moments in our sacred story when his people reached a new perception of the nature of their God. An obvious one occurred when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments. From this point, the Israelites worshipped one God (though they sometimes lapsed and took on the belief system of their neighbours). And they obeyed the law their God had delivered to Moses. The law of Moses, the law of God, was extremely detailed and prescriptive. There could be no doubt about what Yahweh demanded of his people in return for his protection from their enemies and their rights to the Promised Land. Exodus 20 vv 5b – 6,
Yahweh………..commandments.

We read a few weeks ago of the encounter between Yahweh and Elijah, when Elijah was so preoccupied with his struggle to divert the Israelites from the worship of Baal that he didn’t realise the significance of God’s still small voice. Yahweh appeared to Elijah, not as a manifestation of his power over the natural world, the God outside, but as an impulse, an awareness from within himself. From then on, the Hebrew scriptures present us with a God we can begin to relate to, not the lawgiver God or the warrior God or the nature God, but a multi-dimensional, companion God. This God is presented in poetic passages of elevated language such as we find in the psalms:
Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee to avoid your presence? If I climb the heavens you are there.
If I were to take wings and reach the sunrise, or travel westward across the ocean, your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

The book of Job is the story of Job’s anguished confrontation with the God who has ceased to be the benevolent champion, the deliverer of Israel, but has turned his back on his own people and connived at their suffering. God is a detached presence again, as he was in the Garden of Eden, a force which must be obeyed, conciliated, feared.

The ambiguity in the bible between the God within and the God outside is encapsulated in the lord’s prayer, our reading this morning. Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their father. This God will be a provider of their physical needs. He ‘ll be full of mercy, on condition that they in turn show mercy to those who have done them wrong. There’s no reference to the angry, domineering tendencies that he showed when he appeared to Moses or tested Job. We recognise these qualities of the benevolent father figure as they come to life in the parables that Jesus told. Think of the prodigal son and the unconditional love shown by the father to this disobedient but repentant child. When he saw the prodigal son coming home, the father abandoned dignity and forgot the constraints of old age as he ran across the fields to welcome him home. It’s not by chance that when we talk about the fatherhood of God, it’s this story of the prodigal son that we turn to but we mustn’t ignore the problem of the limitations of our language when we quote this story – attributes we claim for God are often human qualities which we’ve extended beyond the normal human limits.

As well as having all the ideal human qualities of a perfect father, the God Jesus worships is holy. And his name must be hallowed. This ‘other worldly’ aspect of God is supremely important. It’s the transcendent attribute of God which Jesus imbibed from the Hebrew scriptures and it lifts God beyond the image of an old man high above his creation which we see in great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The book group spent an evening recently explaining their various reactions to ‘the Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong. This is a difficult book because it deals with a difficult subject – the nature of God.

The members of the book group don’t represent anyone but themselves, but there was an implicit unanimity in most of the comments made about God. Theism is belief in an external being to whom sacrifices and prayers can be made in the expectation that this divine being will change the course of events, interfere with natural law. The theme of ‘the Case for God’ is that theism, this traditional view of a superhuman, supernatural God, has lost its meaning and power for the vast mass of people. It began to lose its meaning with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The process continued with the publications of the work of Charles Darwin. It was caricatured by Yuri Gragarin, the first man in space, whose statue now stands outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He talked after his return to earth about the stupendous experience he had had and in an aside, he observed that he hadn’t seen God up there. His audience laughed.

Many of our hymns and prayers still use language that suggests that theism is alive and well. We pray to almighty God and we sing of [one] whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight. But outside the church these images and this language are empty. And even within the church, as those of us who choose the hymns will testify, it’s hard to find appropriate words to express our perception of God and our relationship with him in a way that makes sense.
‘In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes’
Without intending to be flippant, I want to know what he was doing a week past Wednesday when 24 Indian children were poisoned by their school dinner. Where is he when thousands of people lose their lives or their livelihoods in tsunamis or earthquakes? The suffering of the innocent is one of the great questions that confront us, as it confronted Job in the 6thc BC or God’s chosen people during the holocaust.

However, in our scepticism about belief in a God as a supernatural being who invades the universe sporadically and arbitrarily, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a depth dimension to human experience, a core to our life, both individually and in the life of the world, which is never apart from what we are and yet it’s beyond us, it transcends us. So we ask: WHAT is God? Rather than WHO is God?

Paul Tillich, a refugee from the holocaust, said that God is the presence in which all personhood can flourish. God is the ground of our being.

This is a long way from clear definitions about God – God the creator, God the lawgiver, God the champion of his people. Tillich talks of an internal reality that opens us up to the meaning of life itself. But this sounds nebulous, ungraspable. (David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, wrote of Tillich that his writing was obscure and that the obscurity concealed not profundity but muddle.) Thinking about the nature of God is not an easy ride. We have to recognise once again the limitations of language and use words like energy, vitality, creativity, the sublime. We have to think of examples of sacrificial self-giving, compassion, a thirst for justice, and see that they transcend self-interest. They are not the product of the selfish gene. They represent the highest ideals in life. They are the sum of all values. They exist and we can call them God, without having to believe in an independent, supernatural being. And the greatest of these qualities and attributes is love. David Jenkins said that God is as he is in Jesus. Jesus was and is divine love incarnate. As we heard in our epistle this morning: in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

We are one body made up of different parts. We must use the language of a search, an exploration, a journey, a pilgrimage to describe our need to know God, know his nature and worship his holiness.

This is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: 3 vv 14 – 21.