Late in Time
Sermon for St Salvator’s Chapel Advent Sunday 2015
God be in my mouth and in my speaking, AMEN.
On the U2 album Rattle + Hum – the band do a cover of the Beatles’ track, Helter Skelter – Bono introduces it by saying – ‘This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles and today we are going to steal it back’.
If we come to church on Advent Sunday, we are likely to be confronted with the biblical genre we call ‘apocalyptic’ – the word which comes from the Greek term for unveiling, or uncovering is used to describe a type of writing which has a heightened, fantastic imaginative style, which often features monsters and beasts, visions and symbols, it offers narratives of catastrophe in which the world as we know it is shaken and broken – alongside narratives of euphoria in which a new world is announced and inaugurated.
You might expect such biblical writing to be well received in times like these – after all, science fiction + fantasy are hugely popular within contemporary culture – as are horror movies. Writers, artists, film-makers, graphic artists, game designers – they all use fantastic exercises of imagination to explore who we are and what we are as human beings. Within these biblical apocalyptic is hugely influential – it supplies many of the images and archetypes which are endlessly recycled in these other cultural productions – but when we meet it in church, we are often uneasy.
We are uneasy with good reason. Because biblical apocalyptic has a fatal attraction for the fanatical and the unhinged – it offers a ready made script for spiritual psychosis – it gives manipulative leaders stories and plot lines with which to scare the faithful into submission and compliance. In the USA last week, a group of senior theology academics told me how, in the name of research, they had each paid $16 bucks to go on a ‘rapture trail’ – where they walked through woodland sets containing scenes from the end times – complete with fake blood, the authentic sound of tribulation screaming and a few underwhelming fireworks. I remember well – too well – myself as an 8 year old, waking up when the house was quiet and checking my parents beds to see if the Lord had returned and I, naughty boy that I was, had been behind. As Morrissey says (in the song Shakespeare’s Sister) – ‘I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible’.
It’s Advent Sunday – and the lectionary readings are apocalyptic – so the challenge for us this morning is to do what Bono did to Charles Manson – to steal them back – to steal apocalyptic back from the charlatans and the obsessives and the fanatics.
In apocalyptic literature the richness and power of human imagination is enlisted to break open the limitations of the present – to pull back the veil of time, or place or power – and to allow us, as the writer of Hebrews says, to see what is invisible.
I happen to believe that apocalyptic imagination is vital for the church in every age, but it is a high octane imagination – it’s highly flammable, it has to be handled with care – it has too often been abused in the history of the church to fuel the agendas of deluded or dangerous or domineering people. But despite that, there is a counter-history in which apocalyptic has over and over again been received enthusiastically and treasured by the poor and the oppressed.
By focusing on what lies behind or above the world we see, apocalyptic brings a message of hope and of warning. Writing on the book of Revelation, often known simply as ‘THE apocalypse’ The biblical scholar Allen Dwight Callahan says:
John wrote to write an end to his world.
To those who think their power will last forever, apocalyptic presents a vision of temples being destroyed, of kingdoms being overthrown, of empires crumbling into dust. To those who think their pain will last forever, apocalyptic speaks in two ways.
By offering a vision of what is above and beyond history – it relativises and subverts the power of those who are in power. It is not just other-worldy – it acts on the present. It says that even now, when Caesar is murdering you – the murdered Lamb himself is on the very throne of heaven. It says that there is a power greater than the power you are suffering under. It says that this regime will not last forever – that it is already living on borrowed time under the judgment of God. To those who fear their pain will last forever – apocalyptic works to maintain hope and to inspire resistance.
But it also offers a vision of hope to those who simply have no hope of vindication or survival here on earth. Jurgen Moltmann says that the resurrection of the dead speaks of a future for earth’s victims – for the two year old Syrian child washed up on the beach on a Greek Island – where the promise and potential of that life seems to be utterly gone and wasted – for the victims of war or terror or famine… apocalyptic promises them a place in God’s future.
In Jeremiah 33 – if we read back through the whole chapter – we find God is speaking a word of hope through the prophetic imagination – to a city which has become a wasteland – to a city whose houses are in ruins – to a city where bodies are lying in the streets – Jeremiah brings a new word – an advent word – one which says ‘ the days are coming’ – there are two very striking moments in the chapter, one of which is in the final line of our Old Testament lesson: this city which Jeremiah says has become a byword for suffering and destruction – in the day that is coming it will be given a new name – instead of being called Muckross, it will be called Kilrymont and St Andrews; instead of being called Glasgow it will be called Ecumenical, instead of being called New York it will be called the City of Fair Trade, instead of being called Beijing it will be called the City of Clean Air, instead of being called Jerusalem it will be called The City Without Walls, instead of being called Damascus it will be called Justice, instead of being called Raqqa it wil be called Peace –
In Jeremiah’s vision, instead of dead bodies filling the streets, the city will be a place of safety. Instead of being known as Jerusalem the wasteland, the days are coming when the city will be called THE LORD IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Apocalyptic holds out the hope that your city will be given a new name. When you glimpse that name in a dream, when you hear it whispered in a prophecy – that vision and that word become a call to work and pray for its future under God.
If Jeremiah’s apocalyptic calls the people to live into God’s future – so too does the apocalyptic of Jesus in Luke 21.
Our gospel reading paints a troubling and unsettling picture – it pulls back the curtain on a dystopian vision of the future – people are drowning in a sea of terror and confusion – the unchanging, predictable, reassuring rhythms of creation are moving out of kilter – the sun and moon, the stars and the seas – the powers of heaven are being shaken – all the people of earth are living in dread of the future.
If we are to steal back these words of Luke’s Jesus – it will be through making real connections between these troubled visions and our troubled world – but it will not be through playing some self-absorbed crazy end time bingo – as too many Christians have down through the years.
There are many apocalyptic moments in our lives – moments of unveiling and unmasking – moments when we glimpse the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another. From the little apocalypse at the end of the Lord of the Flies – to the unmasking of the vast cruelty of empire in Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, to the scenes of Vietnam lit by napalm fires in Apocalypse Now.
Our newspapers this weekend are reporting on Judge Lowell Goddard’s independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales – a £20 million investigation over the next five years – which will unveil and unmask unspeakable cruelty, violence and abuse of trust.
And we find those reports placed among many more pages wrestling with the terrible suffering of people in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. In a week when the world held its breath as Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane – many sober commentators on world affairs are wondering if we are living through the most dangerous moment in world history since 1945.
And it is in this world – this world – that we gather to worship and to sing our hymns and to pray. It is in this world we must live and cherish life. It is in this world we must hope.
Advent is an apocalyptic season – it is a time in which we journey again into the five fold apocalypse of the Church’s Creeds – he was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he rose again, he ascended into heaven, he will come again in glory.
What is powerful and searching and telling for us again this year is that today we begin that journey into another liturgical year, into the heart of the Christian Confession – we begin at the end – we begin late in time.
I believe that this apocalypse in Luke 21 calls us and helps us to steal back our confession of the Second Advent of Christ from every kind of degenerate eschatological bingo or self-absorbed soothsaying –
Because this morning we hear Jesus Christ saying – Stand up and raise your heads – we hear him saying be on guard – I have to say that I smiled at the thought of coming back to my alma mater to preach on a text warning against drunkenness and dissipation – but there is something important here about our hearts not being weighed down by alcohol or other opiates – it was Karl Marx after all who warned us that apocalyptic can be a kind of opiate.
We live in a beautiful, complex, intricate and wonderful world – a world which Christians believe has been graced by the advent of God become flesh – but a world in which we do not have to look far to glimpse radical evil and unspeakable horror.
As we prepare to celebrate the first advent of Christ, what is unveiled for us this morning is the difficult Christian confession, in the face of such evil and horror, that this is God’s world – that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done – that our world and our future are in God’s hands. What is unveiled is the difficult and joyful confession that Jesus Christ belongs in our future as well as our past.
So may God give us grace to believe this apocalyptic confession – and to live into it – and by living into it in a way which resists evil, which works for justice and peace – to steal it back for good.