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.”
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