‘The Quiet Apocalypse’ – Sermon for Advent Sunday, 2016. Year A

Sermon for Advent Sunday, 2016

Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 25:36-44

‘The Quiet Apocalypse’

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, has caused many who have a concern for Climate Change to despair. This despair is I suggest ill-directed. The despair, if it is an appropriate response should be directed at human beings in general, and their insatiable desires for more and more. We know more than enough about Climate Change to know that our lifestyles are its prime drivers – taking the brakes of American Industry will only have an adverse affect if people buy more and more stuff. Climate Change denial is much closer to home than we would like to imagine . . .

One group of folk who didn’t need any persuasion about Climate Change and saw it coming were the old farmers amongst whom I lived an worked in England. I’d been teaching it for a long time, but some of these farmers had known something was awry for much longer. Sensitive to the smallest changes in the smell of the air, or patterns of weather or the subtle shifts in the seasons, these men Knew what was coming. But their wisdom is increasingly lost as farming moves more and more towards total industrialisation. A sensitivity to the Land is ‘unhelpful’ in ‘economic’ terms and  these are the terms which must be obeyed, the god which must be placated.

Well with mention of Trump and the Farmers we might imagine that theme of what I have to say today is about what Rachel Carson noted in her book, ‘The silent Spring’ one of the first books to bring the evidence of Climate change to a wider audience.

The Apocalypse is happening and no one is paying much attention – but Climate Change is not the Apocalypse, the Apocalypse is much more difficult to discern than that. ‘No one knows the hour,’ not even the scientists . . .

For Apocalypse is not primarily about the end of the world, only secondarily so. The word ‘Apocalypse’ means what we translate it as in the last book of the Scriptures, Revelation. Apocalypse is not Catastrophe, nor is it a swarm of US helicopters swarming over the horizon the the playing of The Ride of the Valkyries – for those who know their Vietnam War Cinema. No Apocalypse is a Revealing – and is Quiet, it is taking place under our noses – it is hidden – no one knows the hour . . .

To get a better grasp of The Apocaylpse, and why it concerns us as Christians so much, we would do better to think about Noah. Noah is the archetype of the Quiet Apocalypse. ‘as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’ As the days of Noah  . . . ‘For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ –  people just getting on with their lives, going about their business. This Apocalypse, this end of the world revealing seems to quietly happen in and amongst the stuff of everyday existence – and it does, but look at Noah.

There is Noah, in the midst of everyone who is ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ and what is HE doing?? While everyone is ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’, Noah is building an ark.

Noah’s life, and that of his family, his sons Shem and Ham and Japheth, and their families are taken up in what can only appear to be a project of utter irrelevance. In terms of the world in which he lives, Noah’s actions make no sense whatsoever, and popular retellings of the Noah story have those amongst whom he lives mocking and deriding him – and Noah warning them back.

The Ark is utterly pointless to these people ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, – shopping holidaying, working’ And it looks like a huge Joke, as does Noah, and we might imagine Noah saying ‘A great flood is coming!’ and everyone laughing at him. But we would be wrong to do so.

The Noah narrative is utterly bereft of such details. No mention is made of him being laughed at. No mention at all of him rushing around telling everyone to save themselves from the coming flood and build an Ark like his. Just The Command of God, ‘Make me an Ark’, and Noah’s obedience, ‘Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.’ And the command of God, “Go into the ark, you and all your household,’ and Noah’s obedience ‘And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him’ and ‘after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.’

In the midst of all that  ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ – there is a quiet Apocalypse taking place – a revelation for those with eyes to see – but as far as the Noah story is told, no-one saw – as Jesus says ‘they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’.

And while it may be tempting to make parallels between that flood and the forecast inundation due to climate change and sea level rise – such that even here in Dunedin the long term security of parts of our city are called at least into question – that would I suggest be an exercise in missing the point.

What is the command of Jesus in this respect? What does he call US to? ‘Keep awake therefore’ – pay attention. If we are alert to our story, our story as the Church, the story of God’s people, then we will know that in the Tradition, this Noah story plays a role far more important than ‘a story to keep the children entertained’. From the apostle Peter on, and so we might presume from our Lord Jesus himself, this story spoke of the Church, the Ark . . .

Noah’s building of the Ark points us to our response . . . not that stereotypical running around declaring ‘the world is coming to an end!’ (not least because if we know our faith well enough we know it already has) – not in the publication of lots of books in ‘the left behind’ series – but in a long slow patient work lived out in response to the Word of the Living God. Building the Church

It takes but a moments reflection to see the parallels in our day. ‘As in the days of Noah’ The building of the Ark made no sense to those around him. It was a work of seeming utter irrelevance – so too the Church today. Frankly it makes no sense.

In the many myriad accounts of ‘where the church is going wrong’, or ‘how we need to rethink God for the modern world’ There is no account given of what the Church actually is’ I grew up under the ministry of a Vicar who spent all his time telling us that we needed to abandon the old ways of thinking about God. He told us with abandon about how at theological college he and his fellow students had crossed out verse after verse after verse which no longer fitted with ‘the truths of the world as we have come to know them’ At this point I was a highly impressionable youngster, but I liked being in the choir, which increasingly seemed to be the only reason for me to be there. Shortly after leaving home, I also left the church, for frankly what was the point? God loves everyone – whatever we do we will end up in heaven, if there is one – why waste a perfectly good Sunday morning when you could be sleeping off Saturday night’s hangover?? Church made no sense to this rationalist, who still instead on calling himself a Christian, much as it doesn’t to many amongst whom we live . . . which perversely was how Jesus got hold of this lost sheep – but another time.


Why bother with Church when there are so many life enhancing things you could be doing? Playing tennis, tramping, worshipping god in your own way should you be so minded up in the hills? Church?? Who needs it?

In the midst of the continuing travails of the Church in the West – of which our Diocese is at the leading edge – one thing which seems to be missing is any account of the necessity of the Church. If its all a matter of being nice to one another and having a spiritual side, ‘who needs the Church for that?’.

The point of the Church, like the point of the Ark is that Quiet Apocalypse – The Quiet Revelation. The Church is the body of Christ and the business of the Church is to build up that body. As St Paul puts it ‘The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, . . . for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’

What is the Church about? Why does it exist? That Christ might be revealed – that we might come to the full stature of Christ, ‘grow[ing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,’ That all the nations might See . . .
The Creation bears muted and increasingly Silenced witness to its dying – but the world carries on in denial ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, – shopping holidaying, working, driving here and there’ as if the Creation was utterly irrelevant. Yet still it bears witness

Noah built the Ark – and all around him they were ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ as if it was utterly irrelevant that this huge Ark was being built when the weather seemed set fair. Yet it bore witness to a deeper Truth

Jesus is coming to his Church – coming to meet his bride. Is the Ark prepared? Or do other things seem more relevant too us?

This business of Church, of quietly and patiently – like Noah with a simple obedience to the Word of God – building the Church, clear in our minds that this is why we are here – this IS the Quiet Apocalypse – it is the Revelation of the Son of Man.

Let us stay awake – let us not be distracted from our task – ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed’

Christ the King – 2016 – Evensong

Sermon for Evensong, Christ the King, 2016

1 Samuel 8:4-20
John 18:33-37

Of Kings and Kingdoms

Usually our Sunday evening readings follow on from the usual weekday lectionary – but not this week as the Church marks the end of our liturgical Year with the celebration of Christ the King. However our morning readings this week have had a very strong emphasis on Kingdoms and Kingship which would not be out of place as we have followed the book of the prophet Daniel (and the Revelation of St John)

Both of these texts are examples of ‘Apocalyptic’ literature – stories and readings which sound strange to our ears – yet which were very much part of the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus, the years preceding his birth and afterwards for some two or three hundred years. Daniel may well date from the mid 2C BC. The Revelation given to John, although traditionally dated quite late in the 1C, may actually be one of the earliest pieces of Christian Scripture, and several other writings such as the books of Enoch had a strong place in the Christian culture really until the time of St Augustine not long after the conversion of Rome. Let us say that Apocalyptic texts, replete with references to the Rule of God, weren’t terribly conducive to the business of running an Empire 🙂 Early Christians were only taught The Lord’s prayer at the last moment before their baptism – it was and is so subversive to ‘business as usual’ to pray ‘Hallowed be THY name – Thy Kingdom come . . .’

So these texts were marginalised and many were not included in the final canon of the Scriptures as we have received them – which does give us a rather lopsided view of the milieu into which Jesus was born – and this whole question of Kingship.

There is in every age a legitimate desire for what we would now call ‘stable government’ – Earthquakes as events in the US suggest to us, can be political as well as geological and potentially every bit as much if not more destabilising. Texts which at the very least placed human authority under notice – such as the Daniel stories, which tell of Nebuchadnezzar exalting himself and thus being exiled to live amongst the wild animals as a judgement – or the narratives of St John the Divine, seeing the fall of the great trading power ‘Babylon the Great’ – these texts declare the provisionality of all human rule – and are so powerfully prescient in terms of their descriptive power – of how the meek and the poor suffer endlessly under ANY rule, so it seems – and of how nations rise against each other.

When Jesus says ‘nation shall rise against nation’ – he could be speaking of any time in human history – wars and rumours of wars. Daniel Sees in a dream a great Ram with two horns fighting against a great Goat with a single horn  – he sees these animals as it were charging back and forth across the world. Like Kingdoms, or competing trading blocks exerting their influence, across the face of the Earth. This vision and its interpretation to Daniel left him utterly ill and exhausted – like someone perhaps caught up in the terrible anxiety which seems to beset us at present. It is, I suggest the smallest of jumps to get from Daniel to Trump and Putin, To the USA and Russia and China – and of course Britain and France etc before them. Kings and Kingdoms do not generally get a good write up in history, once we look beyond the pageantry which is of course carefully crafted to deceive our senses. Or to use the Revelation motif – Babylon the Great can be discerned in this and every age

YET this is true throughout all of the Scriptures. We do not need to read long before we find a profound critique of Kings and Kingship. God’s people suffer terribly under the harsh economy of the Pharaoh who brings all of Egypt under a form of economic enslavement – and repeatedly the message is given to God’s people – remember from whence you have come. The Ten Commandments open with the words ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt . . . we can if we have an ear to hear, hear THEREFORE . . . the Ten Commandments as a framing for Life irrespective of the rule of any human king in a human Kingdom, and thus making these things at best highly provisional . . . The Kingdom of God is not to be found under the reign of any human authority

Yet that message is, to say the least slow to sink in, and people still seek ideological utopias through political systems and the people of God are not now, nor were then immune to such fantasies. So as we come to one of the most significant parts of the Old Testament for us, 1 Samuel Chapter 8 – the people, who had in the wilderness complained about their lot, their freedom, now, in the land of promise, hanker after a king, and come to Samuel, the prophet of the LORD asking for a king, for Samuel’s sons don’t follow in Samuels paths, looking for some kind of human certainty, rather than have to deal with the Living God – and Samuel tells them what it is like under a King – always . . . –

‘‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Rulers take some to enforce their military power – others to accumulate the wealth of the earth – militarism, economics, taxes etc etc it is always the same . . . down through the ages people say ‘If we just got the right rulers, all would be well . . .’ And in a democratic system of course . . . A choice between Donald Trump about whom we all know so much, and Hilary Clinton, whose campaign was funded by 11 of the 12 largest armament manufacturers in the world . . . Utopian visions of Egypt led the people to want to return – down through the ages there is either autocratic rule or rule based on utopian visions of making this or that or the other country ‘great again’ (Certainly this was in part what swayed so many in England over Brexit . . . Utopia, a word invented by Sir Thomas More to describe  place which doesn’t exist – literally ‘no place’ Which is a sign of the failure of Google, by the way, for strictly speaking, if you put Utopia into a search engine, it should come back, ‘Your search returned no results . . .’ 🙂

Which brings us to this feast day – Christ the King. And Israel has not learned after all these years. Her blindness is ours as well. She still believes in this Utopian vision – led on by an overly glamourised picture of the reign of David, who committed Murder and adultery and whose son, Solomon enslaved his people with his imperial pretensions. And Jesus’ encounter with Pilate brings it all to a focus in that Jesus will not take upon himself the mantle of King. To all of Pilate’s questions Jesus refuses a direct answer. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king . . .

Part – perhaps the biggest part of the danger with calling Christ the King is that we are still looking for a King. Yet as Brett showed us this morning, Christ is the King who subverts kingship – the one who announces the reign of God which instead of the hard work of rule over us, opens the door to something at once more wonderful and far far more challenging. God’s Reign in Christ is to live in the freedom which he brings – the Truth is the Life of God embodied in Jesus. to live as God’s children is to Love hIm with heart soul mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself – if your neighbour has no food and you have food . . . how difficult is this? This is the Truth . . . but we prefer Kings . . .

In crucifying Jesus we reject the demanding liberation of living in the pure, simple uncreated Light of the Command of God. We still hold out a hope a government or ruler who will put it right, rather than Live Right with relation to our neighbour and God. What doe this command say? If your neighbour is hungry, seek to change the government? No, King Jesus says, ‘if your neighbour is hungry, feed him, if your enemy is hungry feed him’ This is how Love works in and through the world to transform it – it is the only way, but it challenges us and faces us with our own lack of Love, and calls us to change, to conform ourselves to God’s King.

Reminds me once more of that moment at our last synod, when it was suggested that if parishes were having trouble with paying their share to the diocese, they could speak with other parishes around them, they could Love one another, they could as it were ignore the formulas handed down from on high and love one another as Christ has loved us – yet the idea of doing this, of living under the reign of Christ rather than the rule of formulae handed down from on high seems to hard for us . . . so we ask for another formulae, another ruler, another bishop another King . . . anyone but God’s King . . .

So today is the feast of Christ the King, but remember it is Christ the King. Christ qualifies and subverts our meagre imagination – and calls us into a freedom apart from the World’s Kingdom’s and utopian projects which continue to crush and enslave. The Son, and only the Son sets you Free indeed – let us live in his Freedom