SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALof St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
ORDINARY SUNDAY 33
(November 15th) 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20(for the psalm): Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
In my days as a Pentecostal worshipper I was often thrown into paroxysms of panic by the apocalyptic passages of the Bible. These are texts which in their first century setting were designed to assure the faithful not only that God knew the circumstances and trials that believers were undergoing, but also would bring surety and comfort in what were referred to by Jesus as “times of trial.” Mishandled, though, these texts brought to this believer and many of his confreres and consouers only terror. As newscasts brought evidence of war after war this new believer struggled to find comfort in the scriptures.
Images of highway pile-ups and planes crashing (long before 9/11), of graves opening and believers’ bodies rising to the heavens brought little comfort. There were wars and rumours of wars: Iraq, Lebanon, Salvador and, as it happens, Syria were just some of the conflicts thrust on my awareness, while Ronald Reagan escalated Star Wars and stared at Leonid Brezhnev down the barrels of his arsenal. They were heady times, though perhaps less heady than when Kennedy and Khrushchev stared each other down nearly two decades earlier, before my conscious time. Pentecostal doctrine, as I’ve mentioned before, was obsessed with the rise of a Polish Pope and an ethnically Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Though there were no more earthquakes in 1979 than any other given year, each one that did occur had millennialists scanning the clouds for the return of Jesus. Those with whom I was rubbing shoulders expected the Second Coming any day and planned accordingly.
It was as it happens ever thus. Wars and rumours of wars have ever been and ever will be, for as long as humans have breath. Earthquakes have ever been and ever will be for as long as there is an earth to quake. It can of course be acknowledged that improving media were generating heightened awareness of a global village by the late 1970s: images of the Iran/Iraq War were beamed to our living rooms daily from 1980 onwards. It is though also worth recalling, as I have mentioned before, that we were aware of one significant real change: since July 16, 1945 humanity had possessed the resources, for the first time ever, to obliterate itself and cast Mother Earth into nuclear winter. We still have that ability, and now always will.
The wars and rumours or wars, earthquakes and famines were ever thus and ever will be thus. But apocalyptic Christians have forever distorted biblical teachings, effectively fleeing to deserts to await the coming of Christ, as Montanus and his prophets supposedly did (but probably didn’t!) in Anatolia in the third century and as Jim Jones and David Koresh did in their toxic, lethal mixed-up confusions, and others will again.
Jesus was not suggesting that we retreat into silliness so that Roman armies need to rescue us from our isolated waiting spots. He was suggesting that we are aware of the world around us, but more important even than reading the bible with a newspaper in our hands (as Karl Barth allegedly recommended), is reading the bible with a transforming knowledge that it tells of a God who will journey with us into the darkest recesses of human experience.
This was no new doctrine, but a Hebrew doctrine in which the incarnate Jesus was deeply immersed. Hannah, one of the great Hebrew women of faith, was so immensely absorbed in the experience of God-with-her that, cast out as she was about to be on the scrapheap of womankind, she exhibited deep, deep faith in God’s presence and ability to hear and to answer prayer. Few of us will achieve such piety, stemming from a life of immersion in faith. She pours out her heart to God, first in silent petition, and subsequently in praise. In either context her piety was so intense that she might be accused of drunkenness.
As it happens our liturgies of faith take the same journey, from repentance to cleansing to pleading petition to the drunken ecstasy of thanksgiving, though I suspect few would look suspiciously at our rites and wonder if we were drunk! Nevertheless the journey is there in our worship, and as we practice rites with a lifetime of open hearts we may yet experience the uncanny transformation into Christlikeness that the Protestants call sanctification and Orthodox traditions call divinization: transformation into the person we are called by God to be, “Changed from glory into glory, ’Till in Heav’n we take our place” (as Charles Wesley put it).
But as the great interpretations of Hebrew traditions by Christ-followers affirm, especially in the book we call Hebrews, we are aided on that transforming journey by the Christ of Nazareth. He is known to us in his Spirit who invades us, dwells with us, purges us, but always travels with us, whether we name and practice this experience or not. Jesus has done the hard yards, even to the moment of crying out “there is … there can be no God,” yet even as he cried out remaining, as G.K Chesterton observed, God.
It was this that the language of apocalyptic was seeking to express: there will be bombings in Paris and earthquakes in California or Chile or Aotearoa, there will be god-awful suffering in Syria and Christmas and Manus Islands and at the razor wire barricades of Europe and Nauru, in the cells of our bodies and the road- and life-journeys of those we love, and in the slow and sometimes frightening gasps of the earth we are destroying. We need not go out into the desert to encounter the God who comes, but into our struggled and sometimes seemingly empty words of prayer, pouring out our hearts as Hannah did, not always seeing or experiencing answers, yet practising the presence of God, the God who comes, who comes even to us.
Sometimes (though of course being Anglican we might wait until no one is looking!) we might even learn to dance our ecstasy, or even dance or maybe cry our pain, or perhaps just allow our thoughts to dance or weep: to dance or weep in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes still presence of the God who dances and weeps too. Sometimes, as we learn to do that, we may even become so infectious in faith and hope and love, especially love, that others will see Christ too, and dance (wherever they may be, as Sydney Carter put it).
The peace of the dancing Christ be always with you.