and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
(December 3rd) 2023
From time to time texts of apocalyptic raise their ugly head. I don’t mean in church, where at least in theory they can be broken down, “parsed” as it’s trendy and only partly correct to say, but in uncontrolled youth groups, on street corners, billboards, cheap books and advertisements. There they can do irreparable damage, convincing many who encounter them that no matter what price must be paid, the God to whom they refer is a being that can be done without. To put it more dramatically, as Jean Paul Sartre and others have done, that God can be put to death as far as those who encounter – almost certainly “him” – are concerned.
In the hands of Jesus and other biblical speakers they were designed for what in broadcasting we called a “target audience”; an audience of believers who were experiencing persecution. They were to be a source of hope, reassurance, as we will see in our final hymn today, "A Safe Stronghold our God is Still" in which Martin Luther refuses to offer cheap hope.
Living in an extraordinarily apocalyptic age he offered what can seem to be no more than pie in the sky, the hope that even the most grievous suffering and loss can be transcended, is transcended in the encounter with Jesus. Five hundered years after Luther, I remain persuaded that he was right, though God knows I would not wish to be put to the test, and not one of us knows how we would respond in times of real persecution.
As I have said before, by “real persecution” I don't mean by the minor inconvenience of not being able to say the Lord’s Prayer at a council meeting or in school classroom, both contexts in which such use of a sacred prayer becomes a little more then a hollow recitation. No, as Martin Luther put it in his famous hymn,
And let the prince of ill
look grim as e’er he will,
he harms us not a whit;
for why? His doom is writ;
a word shall quickly slay him.
Luther’s hymn, although written from an undisguisedly male perspective, give us some idea of the extent to which Luther was prepared to trust in divine hope.
Divine hope, the writers and speakers of apocalyptic biblical scenes urge us to believe, can transcend all grief, as we sung in our first hymn, "Lo, He Comes" “deeply grieving, deeply grieving, deeply grieving”; all suffering, all bereavements, and indeed all our own failures to believe are transcended.
The lurid scenes that we have heard recently, scenes of sheep and goats and gnashing teeth were designed as encouragement for us to trust in God, to hope in a God who will stand with us even when we fail to stand, and who will bring us and all people into the mysterious state that we give names such as “heaven,” “eternity,” “paradise,” and indeed “City of God.”
And though they take our life,
goods, honour, children, wife,
yet is their profit small;
these things shall vanish all,
the City of God remaineth.
(Though I’m more of a McKenzie Country or, for my Australian friends, Nullabor sort of believer, personally).
So over these next few weeks we will hear words that remind us of our fallibility, and for that matter our mortality, but words also that will speak of hope amidst despair, light amidst the darkness, and joy amidst tears. We will be reminded, as Isaiah put it, that “we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities take us away,” And we will be reminded also, as Jesus puts it “that heaven and earth will pass away.”
But strange people that we are, we will also be reminded that none of these things are the end of the story. Whether the so-called second coming is our own personal mortality or the mortality of the planet we're destroying, or even the mortality of an expanding universe that must one day contract, we will be told that that is not the end of the Christ story or, weirdly, of our story or the stories of those we love and those we pray for.