Sermon Sunday 1 December 2019
Lessons Isaiah 2: 1 – 5 St Matthew 24: 33 – 44
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
O Lord, place into our hearts a desire to please You. Help all our endeavours this day and every day. Strengthen us that we may run the race of faith, and overcome all that may be against us. Amen.
Jesus said, ‘No one knows the day or the hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; the Father alone knows.’ Chapter 24 of the St Matthew’s Gospel is largely made up of apocalyptic writing, sayings about the end time when the Messiah will return, a time of great disruption and distress on the earth. From the First Evangelist, we read:
The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give off light;
the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens
will be shaken. The tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of
Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in
heaven, or the Son, but the Father only.
Jesus compares the violent, sudden coming of the Son of Man to the Flood, Noah and the ark. Jesus says, ‘Two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.’ These verses are extraordinarily dramatic. They signify that most people will be taken by surprise. God will break into human history and God’s dream will be made real.
In the Book of Isaiah, God’s dream is that the earth will ‘learn war no more’ and that God’s people will walk in the light of the LORD. In St Pauls’ Letter to the Romans, the apostle tells the church community in Rome to put on Christ; to put on the armour of light, cast off the works of darkness, because the Day of the Lord is at hand.
William Blake’s painting, A Vision of the Last Judgement, captures the turmoil and theatre of the end time event. It depicts Noah, Abraham, Elijah, Mary, Seth and Jesus, Elohim, Adam and Cain, clouds of women and children, falling devils and rising angels. Blake was haunted by the last days. He painted the scene at least seven times, the last one he kept by him until his death. What are we to make of this apocalyptic literature?
In Jesus’ day, apocalyptic literature was not new. It was used centuries earlier of the fall of Babylon and we can find the same imagery in the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a vision of God coming to the earth: he sees a whirlwind coming from the north, a great cloud of raging fire engulfing itself and brightness all around it. Ezekiel speaks of a man high above a throne set in the firmament, a throne of sapphire stone. It betters anything the special effects wizards at Hollywood could ever do! What are we to make of these verses?
The historian, columnist and TV presenter A N Wilson attributes the decline of the Church in England to two simple reasons. The first is sexual ethics. Traditional Christianity taught that there is no permitted sexual act outside marriage but, says Wilson, no one really believes this. We may add that many of the churches are getting it wrong on the role of women, homosexuality and same-sex marriage. These issues are so foundational to what it means to be human that the credibility of the Christianity itself is called into question.
The second reason Wilson offers is decline in belief itself. Put bluntly, he says, ‘Most people simply cannot subscribe to the [creeds traditionally understood]. No number of Alpha courses can make people believe that God took human form of a Virgin, or rose from the dead. They simply can’t swallow it. They see no reason, therefore, to listen to a Church that propounds these stories and then presumes to tell them how to behave in the bedroom.’ If A N Wilson is right, what am I to tell you this morning about the end times, the apocalypse, and the Son of Man returning on the clouds of heaven?
Described by some as the greatest living theologian, the Swiss-born Roman Catholic priest and professor, Hans Küng, describes the history of Christianity in five broad paradigms. The history of the Church or churches is not homogenous, a history in one colour. It can, says Küng, be divided into five paradigms. These are: the apocalyptic era up to the end of the first century; the early Church up to the sixth century; the Roman and Mediaeval Church; the Protestant paradigm; and the modern paradigm of the quest for the historical Jesus and ecumenism. Küng says that the Church is on the verge of entering an altogether new paradigm. I mention Küng’s analysis of Church history because I want to show that, in the history of the Church, there was an apocalyptic era, a time when many in the Church believed that Christ would return. It had its roots in the Jewish belief that, one day, God’s Messiah would come.
In his book, Can we save the Catholic Church?, Professor Küng criticises the Roman Church for failing to take seriously the well-founded complaints of the Reformers, including Luther, and for adopting an attitude of hostility towards the Enlightenment and scientific thought. If part of our present-day problem is that the churches have been defensive about the Enlightenment and scientific thought, they are also plagued with the Protestant disease, namely, the literal interpretation of Scripture. It is a perfect storm. What am I to say about the end times, the apocalypse and the Son of Man returning on the clouds of heaven?
The first thing we must say is that the language of the New Testament is not literal; it never was. At the fall of Babylon, the same imagery and language was used and the stars did not fall from the sky! The imagery or mythology means that God’s Presence is an earth-shattering experience. The second thing we must say is that the earth may come to an end but it will be by a collision with an asteroid or some such thing and not a violent event by the hand of God. Our theological understanding has moved on and even if Jesus believed that event would come in His lifetime, as some scholars say, still we must move on. We do not live in the apocalyptic era!
In our passage this morning, Jesus said, ‘But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but the Father only.’ The words, ‘Or the Son’, mean that Jesus did not know. In later manuscripts, these three words were removed by the Church because the Church wanted to stress the divinity of Christ, and to do that they needed to show that Jesus must have known!
The other phrase to notice, which is not explicit in the Good News Version, is ‘the night.’ In speaking of the Son of Man, the coming of God’s Messiah, Jesus says the ‘thief’ or Son of Man comes in ‘the night’. ‘The night’ is an allusion to the night of the first Passover, the beginning of the liberation of God’s people from the land of Egypt. Jesus is the new Passover. He will be the salvation of God’s people. God will come to us out of the darkness. So, what does this apocalyptic passage mean for us today?
Once we free ourselves from apocalyptic theology and from the literal interpretation of such imagery, we begin to hear, see and feel the message that God’s Presence is an earth-shattering experience. It changes everything. The solidity of God, God as our Rock, is of an altogether different dimension and, standing on that, the earth could end and, says the psalmist, we will not be afraid. This passage encourages us to root ourselves in the spiritual life and to see the material universe, the universe of physical matter, of fermions and bosons, as transitory and insubstantial. Encounter with God is an all-embracing, life-changing, liberating experience.
The passage also helps us to see that God comes to us in the night, through the darkness. The darkness may be the inner darkness of the soul, the trauma of a life broken by events, and it may also point us to the luminous darkness of God. In Scripture, we continually need to go deeper than the surface. Paul speaks of putting on the armour of Christ; it is, for me, a spiritual armour. It means to be conscious of Christ everyday, as often as we can, on the bus, walking, in the street, in and through interaction with others, and alone and in moments of reflection.
Bringing to the forefront of our consciousness, we open ourselves to the possibility of God working in us and manifesting God’s dream for ourselves and the wider world. Sometimes preachers tell us that apocalyptic passages mean we are to look to the skies for God; I say we are to find God inside, in the heart, mind and soul. It is not a case of preparing for our final judgement, but opening up ourselves to the Spirit of God now, in the present. Let God emerge from within you. Be alert to God’s Presence now.