Sermon for Evensong
Christ the King
‘the most remarkable aspect of [this] civilisation, . . . was the ability of even the poorest members of society to afford cheap and high-quality consumer goods, enabled by immense specialisation in production and an interconnected trading network that spanned the entire empire.’
‘even as they were living through its early stages, [people] were unaware their society was collapsing. Yes, goods were harder to come by, infrastructure was increasingly degraded, urban life was increasingly unsettled, economic growth was only a memory, and new religions boomed as people tried to make sense of their declining prospects. . . .For some people, great profits could still be made: for most, things went on much as before, though with a lower standard of living with each passing year. No doubt, things will improve soon, [they] told themselves: this is only a temporary blip.‘
Or so our cat might wish who has recently had to make do without his favourite, ‘Whiskas with Fish Selection’ . . . Is this a description of our current circumstances? COVID has caused massive disruption to our highly connected and intricate distribution networks, with containers scattered across the globe ‘like abandoned shopping trollies’ as one writer put it . . . ‘We’re out of EVOO! I cried on Friday evening as I prepared pizza . . .’ ‘there is none on the shelves’ my dear wife informed me . . .
Those descriptions however come not from a prophetic book about our days, but from a study on the collapse of Imperial Rome, a collapse which may have been in the view of St John as he struggled to record what he had been shown in his Apocalypse, or literally ‘Revelation’
What John sees is the underlying characteristics of civilisations as they collapse. ‘Great Beasts’ as we heard this morning, signify Nations or Empires, and their fall is the theme of Apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic for when a civilisation collapses, it is ‘the end of the world’ This is why in these days in some Christian circles it has become and object of fascination, yet central to our attempts to understand this strange text has been the theme of repeated patterns. ‘What goes around, comes around’. Civilisations rise, and they fall. The higher the rise, the greater the fall . . . the fascination of some Christians with The End of The World, can perhaps obscure the repeated pattern. Jesus himself says that even the collapse of the Jerusalem temple should not be understood as The End . . . although for many it was ‘the end of the world’.
And so the Great Angel cries out, “Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great!” And the ‘four horsemen’, ‘plague’, ‘famine’, ‘war’ and of course the pale rider, ‘death’, are the great disruptors whose regular return is curiously unexpected, and whose appearances increasingly destabilise what was thought to be secure and indeed eternal . . . Hitler’s Third Reich may not have lasted 1000 years, but the conceit behind the thought is common to all ‘great’ human civilisations. (It is a matter of some interest to consider how one might properly pray in such days . . . but another time)
In a sense one might suggest that to God’s people these words are written as reminders that even the greatest of empires is but a breath, a day in the sight of God whose kingdom we heard this morning – is an everlasting Kingdom. For God’s people suffer under these kingdoms, Rome of course, and Babylon. Which takes us to the Book of Daniel.
The book of Daniel is set in a time when God’s people are suffering – and have been taken into exile. This is the occasion of that most notorious verse in the Psalms 137:10. ‘Oh that THEIR babies heads were thrashed against stones’ the howl goes up no doubt from the mothers of those who had seen such horror inflicted by the Babylonian armies. God’s people suffer and cry for justice – and relief. The End of the Age of Rome, and of Babylon.
Daniel has risen high through the gifts God has given him, but continues to worship God, and not King Nebuchadnezzar. Running through the first part of the book is a repetitive theme of the King requiring that which belongs only to God, only for God to save Daniel and his friends.
Human hubris is the symptom of the End. Nebuchadnezzar, the father of Belshazzar is driven away from human civilisation as a reminder that he is not above all. (Perhaps the idea that ‘we shall save the climate’ is itself a manifestation of such hubris?) Nebuchanezzar was troubled by a dream, as it turned out a dream of himself as a great tree, cut down – Daniel tells him – your kingdom shall be re-established for you from the time that you learn that Heaven is sovereign. Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.’
From the time that you learn that heaven is sovereign . . . Does our Age Know that Heaven is Sovereign?
One cannot help but hear echoes of the words of St Paul in one of the early Christian writings to the persecuted church in Thessalonica, about the ‘end of the age’
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
Nebuchadnezzar does not learn from his dream . . . and clearly hasn’t taught his son very well either
Belshazzar has destruction written all over him. At the apex of human power, Lord of all he surveys, he is drunk and orders that the vessels of Gold and Silver his father had pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple be brought forth. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
The symbolic power of this action needs little commentary, just four words . . . a hand from God’s presence is sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’
That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.
‘Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great . . .’ in one night. And down goes the global trading system with it
Hubris – Over reach – the cautionary tale of Icarus – or perhaps ‘tall poppies’? Or booksellers building rockets . . .
Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great . . .
‘Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!’
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,‘What city was like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste.’
Today is the last Sunday of the Year, Christ the King. The Day on which we are to call once more to mind that here is no lasting kingdom, and but one to which we owe our entire allegiance.
Next Sunday is Advent and we begin Year C in the Lectionary Cycle, the year of Luke
With all this in mind, and to bring it from stories of Kings and collapsing empires down to the personal level, I close with a parable with echoes of Belshazzar’s folly and fall, and the End of all human civilisations from the mouth of the one whose kingdom is eternal
‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
There is only one story. It is Always the Last Day. How then shall we live?