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.