Sermon for Advent Sunday, 2016
‘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’