Some epiphanous thoughts
Monday, 20 January 2020
Thursday, 16 January 2020
Link to my first broadcast on OAR-FM, Dunedin Community Radio. My first pre-recorded, scripted broadcast since ABC days, and my first air-waves tickle since COW-FM days in Casino.
Good fun ... another one goes to air this Sunday (19th January), and I shall link to it on this blog as soon as it's available after broadcast..
Friday, 10 January 2020
SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, DUNEDIN
BAPTISM of CHRIST (January 12th) 2020
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17
You may have heard Philip Yancey’s story of a prostitute who sought help from a community worker. I was once accused of “swearing in church” because I mentioned a prostitute in a sermon. As well as noting that the scriptures frequently refer to the world’s oldest profession, it is worth noting that the alleged murder of a sex worker in Christchurch less than a fortnight reminds us that women – and some men – of the streets are amongst the most vulnerable citizens in our society. The vulnerable are precisely the people amongst whom Jesus called us to proclaim God’s redeeming love.
Which is why Yancey told the story. The woman approached a community worker, seeking help to feed her drug habit. She did so despite the atrocities she was perpetrating not only on herself but on her two-year-old daughter. Details need not detain us: the issue is that, when asked if she had considered seeking help from a church the woman was horrified: “Church? Why would I go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d make me feel worse.” Yancey contrasts the woman’s fear of the judgement she would receive with the story of the Christ who hangs out with prostitutes, and (from another hated wing of first century society), tax collectors.
Paradoxically the reprimand I received from the parishioner – a reprimand formally sent in a complaint to my then bishop (long ago and far away!) – served to reinforce the sad message that the fears of the dejected woman of the streets was spot on the mark. We, the Body of Christ, are far from conspicuous for our manaakitanga, our welcome, our hospitality. Not that we are utterly devoid of compassion. But it is not the hallmark of the Christian community in the view of our wider community.
When Jesus came to his kinsman John, he joined the apparent swathes who were seeking, as John put it, “forgiveness of sins.” Craig Keener notes, “Jesus relinquishes his rightful honor [in order to] to embrace others’ shame.” In the verse before our passage Matthew has made clear that John’s baptism was secondary to that which the younger man would bring. Jesus himself baptised no-one, and the church interpreted its own baptismal mission as fulfilling John’s expectations that Jesus would bring a greater baptism of fire and Spirit. But what was a nice, and traditionally seen-to-be sinless bloke like Jesus doing in a place like a baptismal scene?
In short, he was hanging out with sinners. There was nothing “ersatz,” nothing substitute about the incarnation. Jesus dived into the whole experience of being human. Jesus – and I will make no secret of my very conservative and traditional view of the incarnation and subsequent events – dived into the very deepest troughs of human experience. Jesus dived into the life experience of a woman working the streets or a general ordering missile strikes or a nonchalant passer-by ignoring the plight of his or her neighbour. Jesus dived deep into the void of a British poet whose blog I read this week, a young transgender poet and scholar who stumbled into faith despite the clergy he encountered at a local church, clergy who publicly announced their opposition to moves to ensure LBGTQI were welcome in church. Jesus dived deep into the experience of you or me and so much more.
In ancient iconography the waters from which Jesus emerged were full of symbols of the human pain he left behind. In a modern icon I have seen, the Jordan from which Jesus emerges is full of syringes and guns and condoms and dumped cars and other flotsam and jetsam of our being struggling humans.
We the bearers of Christ are called to walk in those still-wet footprints of our Lord. We are called to bear and proclaim the one who will not, in Isaiah’s prophesy, break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. We are called to be the skipping ones, showing by our lives the possibilities of joy (but of justice, too), possibilities of hope even as oceans warm and forests burn. We are called to be bearers of the one who God called “The One in whom I am well pleased.” We are called to be his hands and feet and ears and he emerges from waters of grot into green pastures of hope.
How we do that, of course, is a complex question. Can I sing? Then sing in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I feed the hungry? Then serve food in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can administer? I certainly can’t, but if I could then administer in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I cook and sew, make flowers grow, read and teach and listen and help a person across the street, can I build houses like Jimmy Carter or fight fires or talk to strangers from different socio-economic and racial cultures?
Can I find ways to say “glory” in today’s world? Can I say that, as Hopkins put it, “the whole world is charged with the glory of God,” when it seems instead that the whole world is deadened by terminal idiocies and selfishnesses and futurelessness? Can I be a walking advertisement for the one whose voice splits the terebinth trees (and makes last Monday’s winds become as if no more than a gentle zephyr or summer breeze), yet who cares for the sparrow that falls? Can I be the hands and feet of the one who dares tread the waters of baptism even when his holiness does not belong there?
The answer is “no.” Or it is unless I open myself up to the nudging of the God who in Christ enters into the waters of human grot. The answer is no, too, unless I set aside my intellectual doubts and let myself be exposed to the possibilities of faith.
Can God be baptised? Intellect mocks, of course, but intellect does not have the final word. Do I dare have faith that this same Christ of the gospel-stories, of baptisms and parables and healings and so much more, is one who “camest from above”? Do I dare trust that as such he, and we with him, enter into the inexplicable and inextinguishable light of the first Easter?
If we do we might already be bearers of light, not darkness, of invitation not rejection. Our prayer must be that we can be hope, be light, be glory-bringers when the woman of Yancey’s recollection, who had been taught to fear the judgement of Christians, crosses our path too. For we too have in Christ crossed the Jordan and left the grot behind.
 See Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 11.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 121.
Friday, 3 January 2020
SERMON PREACHED AT St LUKE'S, OAMARU
EPIPHANY (January 5th) 2020
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
It may be hard for us to imagine the circumstances faced by the Hebrew people when Isaiah – possibly the third prophet to use the name – spoke of radiance and glory and light descending on his people. He spoke of his people experiencing a fate different to the surrounding peoples. He spoke of his peoples becoming a beacon to surrounding, stumbling peoples. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The early Christians soon saw this to have been fulfilled in the coming of the Christ, the whole kit and caboodle of the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They came, subversively, to call Jesus “Lord,” in a land where only Caesar should be called Lord. This was dangerous.
It’s hard for us to understand how dangerous this was. By the time the New Testament texts were being written it was increasingly perilous to name Jesus as Lord. Caesar was Lord. The Christians dared to speak of a Lord when only Caesar was Lord; they dared to speak of his birth and subsequent miraculous life-events as moments thwarting the machinations of Herod. And Herod was the chosen extension of Caesar’s might, doing Caesar’s divine will.
In the same way it had been dangerous, in the time of our last of the Isaiahs, to speak of hope, at least as a faith-based option. Years ago Tina Turner sang, lustily, “What’s love got to do with it?” It was a dark if up-tempo song that some of us will remember. She didn’t write it, but it was so fitted to the bitter darkness of her abused life that it became the title of a biographical film about her. She dared to sing of love when she had known abuse (the abuse she sang about in that other song of hers, “Private Dancer.” It’s worth googling. It’s chilling. It’s a study in daring).
The Isaiahs dared to speak of hope – what’s hope got to do with it? – when hope for various reasons seemed to be irrelevant. They were not popular.
Part of the reason the Isaiahs call to hope was unpopular was because of their specific, challenging, active understanding of hope. While our passages today tend at first sight to reflect a “passive,” “stand and receive” image of hope, the overall flavour of the prophets’ vision was active.
In our Isaiah passage there is much memorable imagery of standing and receiving; “they come to you …your sons shall come … your daughters shall be carried … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you …” But the passage, in literary terms is governed by a different type of verb, an active verb. “Arise! Shine!” I have vivid memories from my boarding school days of the bells that rang to awaken us from slumber. I have fonder memories from other contexts when a kinder voice would interrupt my dreams with the very words of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine!” Both the school bell and the half-remembered childhood voices were calls to action. Slumber time is over. Action time is here.
The prophets and the New Testament writers alike were daring to dream a reality different to that which they saw around them. The followers of Jesus were not seeing the corrupt empire of the Caesars crumbling or defeated. Not in political or military terms. But they dared to act as if they were. They could not even see Jesus anymore, and most, perhaps all who heard Matthew’s story, never had. They experienced his presence powerfully, though, and because they experienced his presence in fellowship and in bread and wine, and in the journeying together through the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew their reality was stronger than the realities they saw around them. In believing they were empowered by Jesus’ unseen presence.
They were either mad or inspired, of course. And the word “inspired” means “breathed on” or perhaps more accurately, “breathed into.” “Breathe on me breath of God,” we used to sing; Edwin Hatch’s hymn makes it clear that he, too, meant “breathe into.” Breathe into me by your wind, your “pneuma” or Spirit. Breathe into me the awareness of a reality greater than that which I see around me. Inspire me to live by that reality instead of by the gloom that infiltrates, swamps even, my news feeds every day.
In the 1997 Robert Begnini film Life is Beautiful, an Italian Jewish father saves his son’s life, though not his own. He does so by inventing a game in which the son is challenged to believe in a different reality. It is a reality in which life is indeed beautiful, unlike the harsh reality of their real life in a concentration camp. The details are unimportant. The Jewish heritage of hope though is critical. Dare we believe in a cosmos where there is a God who will make our hearts “thrill and rejoice,” or in which “our sons shall come from far away, our daughters shall be carried” to us? Dare we believe in a cosmos when all who we have loved and sometimes lost are with us once again, and the new heavens and new earth shine with the radiant glory of God, and darkness and corruption is overthrown?
All of this imagery can be no more than an empty fairy tale, though, if we remain, to return to the language of grammar, passive. If we sit cosily in our safe and happy spaces believing God will soon enough beam us up, and therefore care nothing for a corrupt and crumbling world around us, then we are not only, in Paul’s world, “more to be pitied” but more to be despised than all people. The God-child to whom the wise men paid obeisance was no passive but an active word and voice of God, pricking the conscience of a nation-people.
I happen to be reading Nelson Mandela’s potent 1990s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As he recalls his decades on Robben Island it is very clear that he steered himself and others through the hellish years not by passive acceptance of the evil status quo but by active means. He dared, like the father and child in Life is Beautiful, dared, like the prophets Isaiah, dared like the psalmist, dared like the gospel-writer Matthew, to dream of and strive for a different reality. He dared to dream of and enact a reality in which the light does shine, in which wise leaders do find and proclaim Jesus, in which justice (for all the downtrodden and victimised peoples and species) does roll down like thunder, and in which human beings to learn to love and live, seeing the image of God in one another.
These traditional readings of Epiphany are readings of comfort, readings of mystery, readings of challenge. They dare us not to despair, dare us not to limit the possibilities of God to the mere realities we see around us. They challenge us to lift our vision to a greater God and a greater reality, and to proclaim that God by action (and if necessary by words), to proclaim God in the world God that calls us to live in. The biblical writings are, (unless we tame them to nothingness), daring and subversive. They declare a lordship different to that commonly proclaimed by the Caesars of any age. They challenge us to be active, not passive, to hope not despair, and then like the wise leaders, to go on into the world having been changed a little, having been prepared and on- or in-breathed by God’s Spirit to work to re-engender that same change in those we encounter. By being breathed on bu God's dangerous Spirit we too may bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord who is so much greater than Herod or even Caesar.
Friday, 20 December 2019
SERMON PREACHED AT St ANDREW’S, MAHENO
and St LUKE’S, OAMARU
ADVENT 4 (December 22nd) 2019
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Psalm 80: 1-17, 17-19
Romans 1: 1-7
Many years ago, when I was a broadcaster, I interviewed a rabbi in the lead up to Christmas. It became a strange assignment. Understandably the rabbi seemed to think it was his task single-handedly to dismantle the entire fabric of Christmas stories. With great delight he disclosed to me, with an Oxbridge accent, his great insight: the Hebrew of our passage from Isaiah does not mention the subsequent Greek interpretation, “a virgin shall conceive,” but refers to conception, not necessarily miraculous, by a young woman, probably in early adolescence.
Unfortunately the combination of his accent and a slight speech impediment meant that I didn’t hear the rabbi terribly clearly. I must have looked reasonably gormless as he drove his point home. I’m sure I continued to appear gormless for the ten minutes that he would have remembered me.
In fact there was no shocking new disclosure. It’s never been any great secret that Matthew invested a massive amount of symbolic meaning into his version of the story of the Messiah’s birth. Luke did the same, and the stories have been, at their best, powerful vehicles of the gospel message ever since.
But they were not designed to tell the mechanics of the conception and birth of the Christ. Twenty centuries of misogyny have ensured that aspects of this story have been used to maintain a deep fear of women and their role in human reproduction.
Enough said in a family setting, and besides, I’m a prude. But as I have often said in preaching, the critical take away from Matthew’s chronicle is not about the DNA of Jesus of Nazareth, but about a caring, compassionate God. This is the same God who flings stars across universes, and yet who cares for lowly and the humble and the not so lowly and humble, who cares for sparrows that fall, and for you and for me. That is, as Mark’s more pared back gospel-telling puts it, is “the beginning of Good News.” In Matthew’s quill the story will end with “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Mark is more subtle. He has women telling the gospel story despite their abject fear.
Currently apocalyptic fires and unprecedented rising temperatures are ravaging our near neighbour. Much of the trauma is occurring in places where Anne and I have lived, had parishes, have family. Other near-neighbours face the drowning of their homes beneath rising sea-levels: we will soon see new waves of refugees as a result. One can only pray that they will not receive the razor wire incarceration that has been the response of many nations in recent years and throughout history.
Do humans not see the image of God in refugees?
Every news feed provides examples of ways in which any pretence of decency is stripped away from the leadership of the free world. This has of course happened before. That is why I referred last time I was here to “an anti-Christ” rather than “the anti-Christ.” the latter is a phrase I simply do not use. Nevertheless the rise of hatred and erosion of public trust are deeply anti-Christ, and the blasé indifference of the wealthy nations to the most wretched of the earth is deeply offensive to God. Narratives of hatred have been enshrined before, in the electorally sanctioned rise of Mussolini and the parallel lead-up to Hitler’s Reichstag Republic. This will happen again, if God does not elect to intervene dramatically in the timeline of cosmic or at least human history.
We know that God cares, because Matthew bent over backwards to tell a potent story about the coming to us of God’s redeeming, healing love. He told a story of a God whose compassion and justice are revealed in a Bethlehem manger and will be revealed again in whatever form judgement may take. Matthew told the story, and the early Christians’ experience of the presence of God in worship and fellowship was so strong that they had no trouble in telling that story over and again throughout the crumbling Roman Empire. They even made Matthew’s and the other gospel writers’ words into Scripture, “holy writ.” Their experience of the presence of the death-conquering, hope-bringing Immanuel was so potent, so confirmed again and again as the Christians read the Hebrew texts, that we hear it still today.
We do so even if the white noise of Christmas and of Western (Global North) complacency has all but drowned it out. We do so even if what one prayer-writer calls “our unhappy divisions” have all but drowned it out. We do so even if our own sinfulness (mine and yours) has all but drowned it out.
The Advent story with its reverberations of a God of judgement, the Christmas story with its reverberations of a God who draws near (even within) us, Immanuel, the gospel stories of Jesus’ teachings of compassion and justice, the sorry story of his being deserted by all but a handful of faithful but powerless women, the gospel stories of his suffering and death: these stories would have remained fatuous nonsense had it not been for the early and overwhelming experience of the death-conquering, risen Christ with them – and us – after the resurrection.
It is to that that our liturgies and readings point. It is because of that that, while I am not interested in the DNA of Jesus or the bio-mechanics of his conception, I am absolutely convinced that in the Jesus-event we see the unique, redeeming action of God. As Matthew and Paul before him knew at the time of a crumbling Roman Empire, human expectations and constructions were horrendously fallible – and still are. Empires wax and wane, still are, still do, but a greater truth lay beyond them. As individuals we may suffer, and will die, but the early Christians were dynamically aware of a greater hope beyond their sight, making itself known to them by faith. It is that life- and death-transforming hope that we are called to be messengers of, by our lives and, if necessary, our words.
We can be authentic messengers only by the empowerment of the Spirit, who makes all of Jesus’ meaning present to us. As we rejoice, amidst the white noise of Christmas, may we know the peace and the dynamism of the Christ-child. He emerged from the womb of an obedient and brave mother. He would later die with her watching on. Yet he would transcend even death, and those who followed him would proclaim that Good News even to the ends of the earth and even to the present day.
God of light and life
grant that we may be ready,
like Joseph and the young woman Mary,
that we too may be willing
to welcome, gestate and proclaim
your saving presence in the world,
this Christmas and through all ages,
empowered by your Spirit
and always in and through
your Son our Saviour,
born in a manger, died on a cross,
and leading us onward
even in eternity,
Saturday, 7 December 2019
SERMON PREACHED AT ST LUKE’S, MOSGIEL
ADVENT 2 (December 8th) 2019
Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19
Some of us who grew up in the New Zealand education system will recall encountering Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory as a set text somewhere around the ages of fifteen to eighteen. For me, because I dwelt on the arty end of the spectrum of learning, it was one of the most valuable experiences, apart from a reasonably successful sporting career, of my schooldays. I was a rabid adolescent atheist when I read it, but somehow it sowed some seeds.
Graham Greene, for those who didn’t encounter him, was one of the most significant novelists of the twentieth century. A flawed human being, but we all are, he wrote novels that often had deeply theological implications, and arguably none more so than The Power and the Glory. The central character, a burned out, unnamed alcoholic Roman Catholic priest, is eventually shot, martyred by the anti-Christian Mexican authorities in their crusade against Christianity. But as he faces his death the eye of God narrator notes the arrival of another priest in his town. The symbolism is obvious: the gospel is not conquered. God is not conquered.
That thesis is of course unprovable. Advent is a time set aside to reflect on and prepare for the Second Coming of our Lord, however we understand that. Our own death? The collapse of human existence? A dramatic and divine intervention in cosmic history? The proof of Graham Greene’s belief, and mine, that the gospel will continue to be carried even after all human expectation is lost in a quagmire of defeat, is unprovable.
All of which I say because we the people of God, in all our myriad forms, are undergoing changes at least as dramatic as those faced by our forebears in the fifteenth century. That was when the world of Christendom blinked and found itself torn asunder. It had been torn asunder before, of course, but here we were again, looking at each other down the barrels of our Protestant and Catholic cannons. And canons, too, but that’s another matter.
When Matthew was writing his story of Jesus, at another apocalyptic, scary time, he recalled clearly the oddball Baptiser proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Messiah. At the time Matthew was writing it was probably particularly important to recall those events, as some of the Baptiser’s disciples may well have still been awaiting his return in glory, rather than that of his kinsman Jesus. Matthew’s point was that John was pretty remarkable, but Jesus alone was the revelation of the heart of God and all God’s hope.
Matthew recalled clearly John’s expectations of an end of time outpouring, that he expressed in traditional Hebrew terms of fire and God’s Spirit. There is no need for us to dismantle that expectation, however we interpret either the first or Second Coming of Jesus. If God is the God who scatters time and space across nothingness, if God is the God who births hope in the womb of a Jewish peasant girl, if God is the God who touches and transforms your lives and mine (though we all are capable of forgetting that far too often), then God is capable of wrapping up cosmic history in whatever way God decides.
And if not, then, as Paul puts it, we are more to be pitied than all people – but I cling to belief that God’s promises are true, however unlikely, unprovable.
But what is this time of change that I refer to today and in many other contexts? Because I am a blow-in from the diocese, as I said in your newsletter, I have only a kind of passing authority to say this amongst you, but is my firm belief that we as church are being led by God’s Spirit into a time of cataclysmic but God-breathed reformation. For too long we have relied on a presumed authority and standing of the Church in society, presumed that we can wave a big stick and see the world around us tremble. Today that world is more likely to snooze indifferently. A few years ago I watched as a bishop (not ours) released what he paradoxically called a “confidential press release.” He was, I think, expecting a stampede of media attention, but the media, instead, got on with matters that were of interest to people. A strange official in an increasingly unimportant religious organization was not it.
As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care in New Zealand, as well as other cases around the world, remind us, we have destroyed much if not all of the trust society placed in us. Our graced place in that society has crumbled. There are now no false gods for us to cling to. The only means we have to proclaim the gospel is our personal integrity. We for centuries proclaimed not what Paul refers to as “Christ who lives in me” but our corporate and individual importance.
Like Narcissus and his pond we looked into the gospel and saw, far too often, only ourselves.
Not all of us, and not all the time, of course. We have all known saints. The public saints, like Desmond Tutu, for whom, incidentally, we are called to pray at this time as he fights an infection. Or those private saints who have passed through our lives and inspired us – I will recall for all my life one dear parishioner who spent her spare time walking around her town visiting the “old people” who were far younger than she was, making sure they were okay.
But the winnowing fork of God is in the barn of our corporate and individual lives. Where we have played games with the gospel, reinventing Jesus in our own image, wherever we are on the spectrum of liberal to conservative, God’s winnowing fork is on our lives. The message of John the Baptist and of all the apocalyptic prophets of the scriptures, is a stern one. Repent and be baptised, figuratively and sometimes literally. Open that or this aspect, dimension of your life and mine – and I have many hidden corners too – to the gaze of God.
In the hands of many preachers that would be a terrifying threat. Yet I believe deeply that the gaze of God, the “wrath that is to come” is the loving, healing gaze, the loving healing wrath of God. Advent, and the advent moments of our entire life journey are not a thing of terror. They are not a “meh” thing, a thing of nonchalance, either. But they are not a thing of terror.
Whether we be an institution or an individual, whether we be pretty rough around the edges or pretty cultured and sophisticated (and I’m afraid I count myself amongst the rough and the broken) our task is to ready ourselves for the God who judges, to be revealed in what we call the Second Coming. The winnowing fork is an image not of terror, but of God’s invitation to set ourselves right, so to open our lives to God’s gaze that we feel nothing but divine love and grace.
For some of us that may take an eternity, but fortunately our God is an eternal God, and it is to that eternal, timeless God that we are called to redirect our lives – aided of course by the Spirit (who we will talk about, perhaps, another time). The whisky priest of Graham Greene stumbled on, as Emmylou Harris put it, into grace, never seeing the fruit of his stuttered ministry. So too might we. But the promise of God is “Lo I am with you, even to the end.” The irony of faith is, of course, that there is no end. “Lo, I am with you always, always, always.”
So that we too can cry out with St. Paul, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.”
Friday, 15 November 2019
SERMON PREACHED AT St MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS’, TE ANAU
ORDINARY SUNDAY 33 (November 17th) 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25 / Malachi 4:1-2a
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21: 5-19
In recent weeks our readings have reflected growing emphasis on apocalyptic, on often quite zany expectations and depictions of the end of time, of cosmic implosion, a divine mic drop that brings all existence to an end. Apocalyptic of the most lurid sort is only one strand in scriptural writings, but “apocalyptic” theology underscores most, though not all, scripture. The word simply means to reveal that which is hidden, and the hidden dimension, Jews and Christians amongst others would proclaim, is that God has a hand on cosmic history.
Some Christian communities dwell on the “beam me up Scotty” dimension of these writings. They are not some cushy opiate of the people. These writings issue a deep challenge. We are called to hold to and provide hope as expectations collapse around us, especially expectations that our descendants will live in an improving word. Those expectations are dissolving. When I was a kid all was rosy, work would soon be a thing of the past, and all would be most well. As I watch newscasts of conflagrations in Australia, California, South and Central America, or deforestation, rising sea levels, glacier retreat, dying species, the never-ending plight of refugees, the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer controlling hands, as I watch I cannot help fretting. Perhaps it was ever thus. Perhaps it is now more thus than ever it was.
The lens through which most biblical writers view the universe and its fate is often condemned for its other-worldliness. So it should be, if complacency is all it breeds. But God’s promise of hope-beyond-reason is not an excuse to sit comfortably and wait our rescue from the universe and its problems. As one commentator puts it, writing about Isaiah, “it was very tempting to dissolve the dialectic [the tension between choices] in favour of flight into apocalyptic visions of a blessed realm unsullied by the political realities of this world.” That, the scriptures warn us over and over again, is not the way to which God calls us.
Nevertheless the focus of our readings is on a goal beyond our sight. When I was a child my boarding school was visited annually by the indefatigable Keith Elliot VC. His only sermon, it seemed, was “keep your eye on the ball, keep your eye on the bible.” We pre-teens used to groan; still, first I have to acknowledge Eliot’s is probably the only sermon I have ever remembered, and second, I have to acknowledge a sense in which the old Wellington City Missioner was probably right, if at one remove. The focus of the bible is fiercely futurific, a future far beyond our sight or understanding. Again and again the biblical writers affirm, as Malachi puts it, “The sun shall rise (Malachi 4.2).” It’s pie in the sky, yes, and it has led from time to time to obscene Christian nonchalance, but at its best it has inspired the People of God, Hebrew and Christian alike, to profound endeavours in the service of God’s promise of hope.
Apocalyptic writings, often lurid and bizarre, often containing vivid references to the destruction of God’s enemies. They were never designed to be a detailed road-map of the future. They promised not a rosy immediate future free of climate change, cancer or anything else we don’t want, but the strength and focus to withstand whatever dwells ahead. As we encounter report after report of troubled times on God’s earth their message is clear: fear not, for I am with you, always. Whatever tragedies befall us and those we love, these are not the final word. These are not easy promises to adhere to, but they are the promises we are given.
Personally and publically, privately and universally, we as humans, and not least we who are Christians may face hard times. Faith in the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter, Bethlehem and Future Coming, is not a passport to easy highways. Again and again the words are words of “hope despite.” “They will arrest you and persecute you,” Jesus says, and this has been the lot of countless followers of Jesus. Our paths may be less spectacular, we pray, but the principle is the same. Persevere, and I, Jesus persevere with and within you, even to beyond-time.
In a fortnight or so we slide into Advent, with its growing confusion of expectation of the Coming Christ of timelessness and the already-come Christ of Bethlehem. But they are one and the same. Our footsteps are in his, wherever we stumble: “Oh let me see thy footsteps, and in them plant my own,” we used to sing. With that comfort we are called to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” for those in the world around us. Or, more accurately, we are called to ensure that our lives and resources are put at the service of those thoughts and prayers. For those whose homes have disappeared in the world’s fires or wars, for those whose cancers grow, for those whose banks call in and foreclose loans, “thoughts and prayers” mean little. Are we bold enough, our writer demands, to be the answer to our prayers for those whose crises come to our attention? Are we bold enough, empowered by the Christ-bringing Spirit, to be the hands and feet, the comforting arms and perhaps even the listening ears of Jesus to those around us? “It will be a sorry world,” says Old Testament theologian Paul Hanson, “that takes a vision of God’s new heaven and earth out of its social justice equation.” But vice versa, too. We are called to be a part of and to encourage that social justice equation for all who stumble in dark times.
We are called not to be, as the Thessalonians were forcefully reminded, “not to be idle … not to eat anyone else’s bread.” We probably don’t need to be Shakespeare to work out that there’s something of a metaphor as well as a literal meaning operating there: as we see the gap widening between rich and poor in our own country, and between rich nations and poor nations internationally, we might wonder if we are indeed “eating someone else’s bread,” or being idle in the face of national and international injustices.
With all our failings we are called to cling to the hope that is the weird, beyond rational, hope that is the crucified, risen coming Christ. We will never understand that intellectually, but as we practice over and over again the worship of God in liturgy, as we refocus over and over again in our liturgies on the presence of the Christ who draws us into God’s future, we will be, despite all that goes on around us, empowered to be “soul-gainers”: faith-growing, love-and-hope-sharing bearers of apocalyptic Jesus in the communities and world around us.
May God so help us.