Sermon: Apocalypse Now
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
I Sam 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-9
Dr. Raymond Pelly, Priest Associate 15/11/09
The Gospel today is pretty challenging. Of the Temple, Jesus says ‘Not one stone will be left … upon another’. Then, after a warning against false prophets & messiahs, ‘Nation shall rise against nation … there will be earthquakes … famines … the beginning of the birth pangs [of the new age]’.
Background to this was the refurbishment of the Temple by Herod the Great which had taken forty years and great expense.
In fact, in September 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed by legions of the Roman army led by the future Emperor Titus; and, worse still, in response to another Jewish Revolt, the whole city of Jerusalem was razed to the ground in 130 AD by the Emperor Hadrian.
From this we can get a sense of Jesus’ prophetic theology being not just about individuals (or even community) and their religion, but about a facing up to the realities of contemporary history.
Does this kind of thing have meaning for us today? What is our contemporary apocalypse? What is struggling to be born?
In answer to that, here are some of the things that caught my eye last week.
- A report in the Dom Post on a Chinese TV program detailing the damage to glaciers & lakes in Tibet caused by pollution from coal-fired industry in China (fed partly by coal mined in Australia). This is threatening the headwaters of the great rivers of Asia: the Ganges & Brahmaputra in India & Bangladesh; the Mekong River in SE Asia; the Yellow & Yangtze Rivers in China – rivers that are basic to the lives of at least a billion people. What if they dry up altogether?
- Two headlines in successive Guardian Weeklies, ‘The capitalist dream is dying a painful death’ & ‘Oil wells are running dry much faster than figures show’ – provoking the question: Is the whole energy & economic basis of our ‘civilization’ at risk?
- A prophetic lecture by Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, in which he says that the much vaunted ‘secularization’ of Europe has had two side-effects: the birth-rate has dropped alarmingly – people are too hell-bent on their own pleasures to be bothered with the sacrifices needed to raise children; and, secondly, into the void left by shrinking religion has come fundamentalism, often of the Muslim variety. In Britain the most popular forename is now ‘Mohammed’.
- Then all the razzmatazz about Bishop Brian Tamaki from which it emerges that he is a self-appointed Bishop requiring hero-worship of his self-inflated ego from the faithful and, yes, you guessed it, money. Contrast this with the painstaking democratic process of electing Anglican Bishops (lately in Dunedin & Auckland). I’m reminded too of the saying in the Highlands of Scotland, ‘Short-cuts always lead into a bog or a morass’.
- Finally, a review of Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood which catalogues some of the concerns in her fictional writing that have made her into a prophetic figure. I quote, ‘Her fictional warnings since the 1970s - about our corporations, biotechnologies, greed, sexual mores, rising right-wing ideologies, loony lefties, and the pollution of the environment – have been confirmed with a regularity that ought to give us pause’.
Theologically our Gospel pivots around the phrase ‘I am he’, in Greek simply ‘I am’. This has a double function. It lampoons false prophets & messiahs, wannabe gods or people masquerading as gods; and, at the same time, points to the true God. And who or what is this? For the biblically literate, the words ‘I am’ evoke the ‘I am who I am’ of Exodus 3:14. Now we’re talking about the God who hears the cry of a suffering people and who comes down to deliver them. This God, the true God, is the One with whom Jesus is viscerally connected. According to Philippians 2, this shows itself in two ways: first, in renunciation of status – notice the stark contrast with wannabe gods – ‘because he was in the form of God [ie the true God] he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [for his own advantage]; and, second, in a pattern of self-humbling obedience that put his life at risk in the service of others: ‘he emptied himself, taking on the characteristics of a slave … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’. All this was motivated by what we might call ‘a co-passionate love’ – a love, that is, that both shares the sufferings of the afflicted – ‘in all their afflictions, he was afflicted’ (Isaiah 63:9) – and a love, equally or even more, that is passionate about the liberation of all those who suffer. In this we see the incarnation of the ‘I am who I am’ of the Exodus, the one alone who is truly entitled to say, ‘I am’ or, if you like, ‘I am he’.
The whole point, then, of our Gospel’s little apocalypse is simply to say that without this Gospel of Jesus Christ (properly understood) and disciples devoted to its cause – the kingdom of God – the world will strangle itself in its own ‘devices & desires’ (as the old Prayer Book Confession has it). So what we might take to heart and take away from this morning are some of the other words of Scripture that we have just recited or heard:
God raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap … for the pillars of the earth are THE LORD’S, and on them he has set the world (I Samuel 2:8)
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope. And let us consider how to provoke one another to good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
Need we say more?