Holy Trinity Evening Prayer 30/11/03
Joel 3.9-21, Revelation 14.13-15.4
"You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd." - Mike Yaconelli.
I trembled when I saw the readings for tonight. Joel - an unknown writer delivering a universal message of judgement on those who would stand in God's way; and John - a visionary declaring eternal glory for those who die in Christ, eternal punishment for everyone else.
I trembled at the dark imagery - ploughshares being beaten into swords, the sun and moon darkened, the stars no longer shining, the angel swinging his sickle across the earth, the wicked being trampled like grapes, blood flowing out of the winepress, whole nations desolated.
Even the positive imagery is strange and awesome - the Lord roaring and thundering, mountains dripping new wine, hills flowing with milk, a sea of glass and fire, multitudes in the Valley of Decision, multitudes carrying harps given to them by God.
This is apocalyptic language - and contrary to what we may imagine, it is language for today, carrying truth for today. Disturbing truth, no doubt, but God's truth, if we would only allow ourselves, trembling, to embrace it and believe it.
Apocalyptic language always flows from peoples under pressure, like Joel's Judeans under siege from nations proclaiming false gods, and John's martyred followers of Jesus. Today we hear it from many such peoples in the world. For instance Native Americans, their culture brutally torn from them by European settlers over the past 300 years, their 'ghost dance' religion devoted to unity, love and a hope of renewal, rejecting the white man's conquest of their land as a short-lived and chaotic bad dream, looking forward to waking up one day to a new world restored and healed of the environmental destruction of today.
Apocalypse, [writes Mike Davis], is such an over-used and cheapened term, it is important to recall its precise meaning in the Abrahamic religions. An apocalypse is literally the revelation of the Secret History of the world as becomes possible under the terrible clarity of the Last Days. It is the alternate, despised history of the subaltern classes, the defeated peoples, the extinct cultures.
Apocalyptic language carries truth for today, about the way the world really is. It's God's truth, it awakens us to the awesome power of God, who is still at the heart of the world, who still holds history in his hands. It's enough to make us terrified.
The tragedy of modern faith is that we are no longer capable of being terrified. We aren't afraid of God, we aren't afraid of Jesus, we aren't afraid of the Holy Spirit. As a result, we have ended up with a form of faith that attracts many people... but transforms no one.
What happened to the bone-chilling, earth-shattering, gut-wrenching, knee-knocking, heart-stopping, life-changing fear that left us speechless, paralyzed, and helpless? What happened to those moments when you and I would open our Bibles and our hands started shaking because we were afraid of the Truth we might find there?
William Barclay tells us that the word used in the Bible for "Truth" has three meanings - a word used to describe a wrestler grabbing an opponent by the throat; a word meaning to flay an animal; and a word used to describe the humiliation of a criminal who was paraded in front of a crowd with a dagger tied to his neck, its point under his chin so he could not put his head down. That is what the Truth is really like! It grabs us by the throat, it flays us wide open, it forces us to look into the face of God. Apocalyptic views of the world are the product of this truth. When is the last time you and I heard God's Truth and were grabbed by the throat?
Unfortunately, those of us who have been entrusted with the terrifying, frightening, Good News have become obsessed with making Christianity safe. We have defanged the tiger of Truth. We have tamed the Lion, and now Christianity is so sensible, so accepted, so palatable.
Who is afraid of God anymore? We are afraid of unemployment, we are afraid of our cities, we are afraid of the collapse of our government, we are afraid of not being fulfilled, we are afraid of AIDS, but we are not afraid of God.
I wonder if the Church could ever become a place of terror again; a place where God continually has to tell us what the angel told Mary and the Shepherds, "Fear not"; a place where our relationship with God is not a simple belief or doctrine or theology, it is God's burning presence in our lives. Can the Church become a gloriously dangerous place where nothing is safe in God's presence except us? Nothing - including our plans, our agendas, our priorities, our politics, our money, our security, our comfort, our possessions, our needs.
John, writer of Revelation, knew that he had been with Jesus and it made him fall at his feet as though dead. The impotence of today's Church, the weakness of Christ's followers, and the irrelevance of most parachurch organizations is directly related to the lack of being in the presence of an awesome, holy God, who continually demands allegiance only to Him - not to our churches, our organizations, or our theology.
Apocalyptic is good news to a world tired of people whose God is tame. Apocalyptic is good news to a world longing to see people whose God is big and holy and frightening and gentle and tender...and ours. Apocalyptic shows us a God whose love frightens us into His strong and powerful arms where He longs to whisper those terrifying words, "I love you." Apocalyptic invites us to embrace the God of Joel and John whose vision was of a world transformed by his shocking, awesome, just and wonderful power.
My Mike Yaconelli tribute sermon. Adapted from Mike Yaconelli: The Safety of Fear.
Also quoting from Mike Davis: Dead Cities, A Natural History.