Monday, 28 November 2016

Waiting for the Lord, walking in the light

Sermon preached on 27th November 2016 (Advent Sunday), at Creaton URC. Texts: Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5. The sermon refers to my recent blog series on Revelation.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? That’s the beginning of Psalm 13. It’s a question that many people have asked. The world is in a terrible place, Lord – hunger and disaster and violence and economic crisis and political idiocy right and left. Or for other people: my life is in a terrible place, Lord – I have no direction, my beloved family members are suffering, I don’t know what to do. Or for others again: how long do I have to suffer for my faith Lord, being treated so badly by those around me simply because I want to worship you in ways that others don’t like? When Lord? When can we go up your holy mountain and see you turn swords in ploughshares? When will you return to give hope to your people?

And the answer of the gospel writer is: Wake up! Listen! Christ could be coming back at any moment! Be ready, for the Son of Man is returning – 3…2…1… NOW! Or if not now, it could be any time.

The reading from Matthew is powerful and rather disturbing. It clearly belongs to the form of writing that is called apocalyptic, concerned with the end of the world as we know it. Now, I have to tell you of the project I’ve been doing lately. Just over two weeks ago, I felt a strong leading to read through the book of Revelation prior to the start of Advent. There’s a certain church tradition in reading Revelation in the weeks leading up to Advent, and the way the past year has gone, culminating in Donald Trump’s election, it just felt really timely. So I’ve read through either one or two chapters per day, and written a blog post on each day. My wife describes it as “Magnus is reading Revelation, so you don’t have to”.

It’s a deeply weird book. But it’s taught me a lot about apocalyptic writing and about the many things people have written about the Son of Man. Earlier this year I preached on the coming of Son of Man in the book of Daniel, so my head’s been in the end times this year! Two things I want to say about apocalyptic writing.

First, it’s always written by people who are oppressed, and it’s always about their situation and God’s reaction to it. The reason why books like Daniel and Revelation, and passages like this one from Matthew, seem rather wild and over the top, is that the people writing them are hurting. They have great faith in God, but they have no power in the world, and they are being treated like dirt. And their reaction, sometimes, is to tell themselves and each other tales of God’s justice, of their persecutors being brought to book, and of a future time where righteousness prevails. Sometimes that’s for their own people, sometimes it’s for all people. But it’s always a reaction to being downtrodden. Be very suspicious indeed of apocalyptic literature written by those in powerful places – this is why the American evangelicals who obsess on Revelation and write ridiculous fantasies such as the Left Behind books, are so dangerous.

The second thing about apocalyptic literature is this: it’s deeply symbolic. It’s full of strange imagery, numbers, ideas. But it’s not intended to be taken literally. It’s a bit like an optical illusion or an Escher drawing – if you look at it straight on for too long, you go cross-eyed and start to feel a bit queasy. But if you look at it out of the corner of your eye, at an angle, then you can begin to see the point. I’ve spent the past fortnight with images of dragons, angels, lakes of fire, bowls with plagues, horsemen and many other things. They’re not predictive, they’re not literal; they show pictures, offer symbols.

So it is with this passage. I think it’s a mistake to focus on the details too literally. The discussion of Noah is clearly meant as a metaphor. Likewise the parts about one person being left & the other taken. Some take these phrase to suggest that one person will be taken to heaven and the other left on earth to face the coming wrath of God; but it’s just as possible to read them as saying that one will be taken away to some uncertain fate, while the other will continue to faithfully live out their life in God’s sight.

It’s not clear whether the coming of the Son of Man is intended to be a happy event. This is a figure who first appears in the book of Daniel, as one who came on clouds, and was given dominion by God. He pops up in a number of works written between the old and new testaments, appears a number of times in the gospels, and then makes a big appearance in Revelation.

In all these cases, the Son of Man is a figure of power and majesty. He’s a frightening figure. He’s not God-made-man, he’s not the Jesus who lived and walked round with his disciplines and ate fish in Galilee and spoke deep and wise words. The Son of Man is a totally different kind of figure. He’s a figure of great majesty. Jesus has a famous parable in the next chapter of Matthew where the Son of Man comes to judge the righteous from the unrighteous, favouring those who have helped people in need. In a different sort of judgement, Revelation has the Son of Man as a figure with a sword coming out of his mouth, destroying the armies of the beast; and holding a great sickle scything across the earth to destroy evildoers. Church tradition, to some extent backed up by the scriptures, equates the Son of Man with Jesus, but in a very complex way.

So for Jesus to say that the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour is not a reassuring statement. The word of the year has been the Danish word ‘hygge’, which means warm, friendly, cosy, the feeling you get from low lighting and candles and warm fires against the cold fire, shared with good friends and good food and drink. There have been cookery books and lifestyle magazines and all sorts of bars and restaurants around this idea of hygge. Alas, Northampton’s Bar Hygge only lasted a year, but it’s a comforting concept for cold and dark nights. I like it.

But there is nothing in the least bit hygge about the coming of the Son of Man. It’s not cosy. It’s not comforting. It’s exactly the opposite of mulled wine and sentimental Christmas carols and a baby gurgling in a manger. Truth be told, there’s not much cosy about Jesus’ birth either – the baby born to refugee parents with a taint of immorality around them, in a dirty place surrounded by animals. Christmas carols and nativity scenes tell a lot of lies.

It’s often said that Advent is about both the first and the second coming of Christ, the second coming being the coming of the Son of Man. Neither of them is especially comforting or cosy. Jesus is giving us a warning as much as a promise. Beware! Things could happen very quickly that you don’t expect.

We’ve seen this happen again and again this year. There’s been terrible event upon terrible event – violent extremists with various agendas murdering tourists in Paris, Marseilles and Brussels; nightclubbers in Florida; a British MP in West Yorkshire. All of these came totally unexpectedly. I have my own views on the right and wrong of the EU referendum and the US elections, as I’m sure others do; but the result came as a surprise in both cases, to the groups who won and lost, and the public as a whole. Their effects will take a long time to be felt.

Image: Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, statue at United Nations, New York (via Wikipedia)
The kind of change that Jesus tells us to be ready for, however, is a magnificent kind. It will come with great difficulty and danger. The transition could be unpleasant. But the results could be amazing. Because here is the promise – as Isaiah says,
He will settle disputes among great nations.
They will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives.
Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again.
How wonderful a promise that would be. War is a great crime against humanity. I believe with all my heart that war is never appropriate, never justified. We are a century on from the battle of the Somme, where a million died; and the battle of Verdun, where a million more died. Their deaths achieved essentially nothing. I know that some people will justify one war or another because of the actions of an evil general or dictator, and there may be times where it’s hard to see another way. But God can see other ways, and God knows that ultimately war has no purpose. So the promise, in the old song, that “I ain’t gonna study war no more”, is a great one. How we get there, I have no clue. It comes in God’s time, not in our time.

In the book of Revelation, the coming of the Son of Man, and his battles against the great beast and the devil, lead to terrible destruction and suffering on earth. But they ultimately lead to the creation of a new heaven & a new earth, and a holy city, a new Jerusalem, where heaven and earth come together, and God dwells with his people and sees them directly. In that place, we are told, God will wipe away all tears, and there shall be no pain and no death. It’s an amazing vision.

How do we get to that place? We can’t. It is in God’s time. But we are given two exhortations in these passages which show how we can be ready.

The first comes from Isaiah. The last version says of our reading urges the people of Israel: “let us walk in the light which the Lord gives us”. We must walk in God’s light. Do not be people of darkness. We have a God who lights the dark places, who gives sight to the blind, hope to the downtrodden. Israel’s God is the one who liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who liberates us from the things that enslave us. We must walk in that light, following that example, not in the darkness of prejudice and hatred. And we must follow that example, to liberate others and to give hope to this around us who are downtrodden. We are a people of hope.

The second is the urging of Jesus, to ‘stay awake’ or ‘be watchful’  or ‘watch out’. The word indicates alertness, readiness to take action – it’s the state of mind of a night watchman on the walls. In some of the versions of this story in other gospels, Jesus tells us to stay clothed, ready to go when needed.

And it’s this watchfulness that’s the key to Advent for me. It’s so easy to go through our lives being tired, slightly out of it, not fully engaged. Jesus came to shake us up, to wake us up. Imagine what we could do as individuals, as a community, if we were fully awake. If instead of being drugged by the rubbish of consumerism and trash telly and Christmas paraphernalia, we were able to say like Mary did: here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your will. If we were able to be fully alive, to be fully present, to be fully part of our own lives, to be fully aware of the role of God in our lives, to be fully part of the relationships we have with others, to be fully part of the world around us. Think what an amazing thing that could be. Think how much that would let us walk in the light of the Lord.

So be ready. Be alert. Be awake. Because the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect. And he will bring things we do not expect. And we can live in that power, in the wakefulness, in that light of the Lord, right now, in this Advent season, and in all our lives.


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 22: the healing of the nations and the inclusion of all

This is the sixteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 21, new heaven and new earth. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

I've failed (though not by much) in my goal to read Revelation before the start of Advent. Today is Advent Sunday, and I preached a sermon which drew heavily on what I've learnt in the past two weeks. But writing the sermon (and the little matter of it being my birthday yesterday) meant I didn't get to read & blog the final chapter. So here goes, the end of Revelation... during Advent.

In fact, chapter 22 feels like a coda to the rest. We've had the rather gorgeous account of the new Jerusalem; we now get a few bits more detail, which close the book off nicely, and relate some of the themes back to past biblical imagery.

First the angel shows John the river of the water of life, and sitting on it the tree of life. This sense of life-giving contrasts well with the images of death and destruction earlier in the book. This new creation is one where life comes before death. The river flowing out of the city resembles the four rivers which flowed out of the garden of Eden (in some traditions with their source at Jerusalem); and also is close to the river flowing out of the temple in Ezekiel's vision.

The tree of life also recalls (for me) the tree of the knowledge of good & evil in the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve ate with such catastrophic effect. (Perhaps a reminder about literalism here; for myself I believe Genesis to be a myth, a story with important lessons about the human condition but not to be read as literal truth - rather like Revelation in its own way. So when I write about Eden it's referring to the human lessons, and to its literary effect upon other books of the Bible.)
Image: Laurie Kathleen Clark, Heartitude=Art+Soul
Related to the tree of life is one of the last lovely phrases in Revelation: "the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations". Well, the nations need plenty of that, and always have done. It's quite an important phrase at this point of the chapter - it suggests that there still are many nations in the new creation (that is, not just the Christian & Jewish elect); and also that the process of healing is an ongoing one, after the founding of the new creation. This may be a world without death, but not all conflicts have been forgotten. And I think this is realistic - we can live with our former enemies in love, but it may take a long time to heal the hurts we caused each other.

One more important point in this first section of the chapter. We heard in the last chapter that the throne of God would be in the city, no separation by temple or heaven. Here we see an extension - God's servants will see his face. Throughout the Old Testament in particular, the idea of seeing God face to face was an impossibly daunting prospect - God is too powerful, too holy, for mortals to see directly. This is a signficant change from that idea.

The rest of the chapter is concerned with closing the book. First the angel warns that the book is not to be sealed up; John later warns scribes not to extend the book or remove parts of it. Then we have a final message from God as being the 'Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end' (also in the previous chapter), and a blessing on those who are able to enter the city.

Finally we have a closing message from Jesus to the churches in Asia, just as the book began with such a message. He reminds them that he is the descendant of David (that is, an anointed ruler in the traditions of Israel). And he says "come" to everyone who is thirsty, everyone who wishes to take the water of life. In the gospel of John, Jesus said: "let anyone who is thirsty come to me". As with the tree of life, there is a universality here. This is not just a message for the Jewish people, or the Christian people, or some kind of elect - the invitation to the new creation is for anyone. I find this a hopeful end to a book full of division into the righteous & unrighteous ones. This may have been so in the old world, but in the new creation, the invitation is for all to come.

And lastly the book ends with a promise from Jesus that he will come soon, and a response to Jesus urging him to do so (in Greek, but resembling the Aramic Maranatha). Very last of all, the standard message of grace that the New Testament letters end with, reminding us that this huge and sprawling book of bizarre imagery is, ultimately, a pastoral letter to a group of struggling churches.

And that is all (for now) that I have to say of Revelation.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 21: new heaven and new earth

This is the fifteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 20, The millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more." So begins chapter 21. And as apocalyptic visions go, this is a pretty calm one. The conflict is over (we'll see no more violence now for the rest of the book), the old heaven and earth are finished with - and the sea, the realm of chaos and disorder - we're moving into a completely new realm.

The words are well-known, but it's a striking start to the penultimate chapter of the book. After the tumult and destruction of earlier books, we might expect to see a new earth, but this verse describes a new heaven as well - both have been lost and reshaped. Given the description (v2) of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, there still seems to be a separation of sorts between earth & heaven (in John's time the 'three-tier universe' idea was pretty widespread, but the lowest tier of the underworld has now disappeared), but the gap between earth and heaven is narrower than it was. 

A short poem tells us that "the home of God is among mortals ... he will dwell with them". The Greek word translated 'home', skēnē, is the word booth or tabernacle - the place where God dwells with his people; it appears a lot in the book of Exodus, first in the tent of meeting and later in the Temple. Jumping to near the end of the chapter, we're told that there was no Temple in the new Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb dwelt there and were themselves the Temple. George Macleod said that the isle of Iona is a thin place, where "the veil between things spiritual and things material is as thin as gossamer"; here we see the gap narrowed to nothing, the veil lifted or torn asunder.

One more thing from this short poem - God will wipe away all tears; death, mourning, crying and pain will come to an end. In this new earth, all the old griefs are lost. Many commentators have described this as a new creation, with a new Eden - in the first Eden, death came among humans, now in the second Eden, death has been lost. Karl Jenkins set this text beautifully as the culmination to his piece The Armed Man, about war and its losses, and the need for peace:
More vivid pictures: we hear directly from 'the one who was seated on the throne' - God speaks to John directly. He's told that "I am making all things new" and that "to the thirsty, I will give water from the spring of the water of life" (an echo perhaps of one of the beautitudes, promising that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness - or perhaps justice - will be filled). Those who 'conquer' (over temptation and sin, perhaps?) will live with God; but in one last appearance of the lake of fire, we're told that the faithless and various sinners will be thrown there.

And then we move to the next part of the chapter, which at length describes the new Jerusalem. At the start of the chapter, this city is described as the bride of the Lamb - a contrast with the depiction of Babylon as an impure woman. In later times, the church was to regard itself as the bride of Christ, and it's not too far-fetched to see a parallel: when the church is working at its best (which is by no means always) it serves as the body of Christ, a foreshadowing of this later bride of Christ.

Image: The New Jerusalem, 14th century tapestry (via Wikipedia)
We get a long description of the new Jerusalem. The details are argued over, and the numbers are surely as much symbolic as intended to be realistic, but it's clear it's enormous - a square plan of 12,000 stadia on either side (roughly 1380 miles on each side - some translations, including the NRSV, prefer 1500 miles). This is huge, much of the size of Europe (say from Paris to Kiev, west-east; and London to Malaga, north-south). The city is described as being the same height again (impossible on our earth - the International Space Station is at a height of 240 miles above the surface of the earth), although the walls are a much smaller 144 cubits high (clearly a symbolic number - about 65 metres, which is still pretty tall for walls). In the words of Douglas Adams about the equally-eschatological Restaurant at the End of the Universe, "this is of course impossible". Except it's not, though it may be symbolic.

The city's construction involves a lot of twelves - twelve gates, inscribed with the twelve tribes, with twelve angels at the gates; twelve foundation stones, inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. Twelve squared is, of course, 144 (cf. the 144,000 sealed ones earlier in the book), which numerologically can be made from the Greek word angelos, messenger, the word from which we get angel. Some churches have said that these sealed ones are the only people able to live in the new city (and conveniently name themselves as the sealed ones), but there is no evidence for that view in this chapter. It is all the people of God who live here.

We also get a long rendition of the precious jewels from which the city is constructed - walls of jasper, streets of pure gold clear as glass, gates from a single pearl, and twelve foundation stones each a different jewel (the same jewels as on the high priest's breastplate). This is opulence and ostentation beyond the wildest dreams of the poverty-stricken Asian churches, but in a subtler and kinder form than the vulgar ostentation of Trump Tower or the palaces of middle-eastern emirs.

And last we're told that the city glows with its own light, needs no temple, and the gates are kept open always - for this is a city that is always at peace, and which is the dwelling-place of God. Unclean things (or people) simply cannot enter it.

It's really a rather lovely vision. As we'll see in the next (and final) chapter, the new Jerusalem is not the whole of the new creation, but it is at its heart. If the old Jerusalem was the centre of the world for the Jewish people, this new Jerusalem is the centre of the universe (earth and heaven) for all peoples; the real thing of which the old Jerusalem was just a shadowy early form (to paraphrase CS Lewis' description of the Narnia beyond the doors after the end of the old Narnia in The Last Battle). 

But let's be clear. This is not heaven. This is not some other-worldly realm. It occurs in a future time - it's not the kingdom of heaven which anyone can access here on earth, as Jesus taught. But this new Jerusalem, however much it looks impossible, exists on earth - a recreated earth, an earth stripped of pain and death, but nonetheless the earth. This is a vision of the earth as it could be, and in John's belief, as it will be.

Next (and final) reading: ch 22, the healing of the nations and the inclusion of all