john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    In search of love in the face of Apocalypse

    Sourton, Bratton Clovelly, Germansweek,
    6/11/2011


    1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, Matthew 25.1-13


    This is a time of red skies and uncontrolled fires; this is a time when the dead are recalled, whose souls are alive to us again in the potent atmosphere of remembrance. This is a time of All Saint's, All Souls', of Halloween, of Bonfire Night, of Remembrance Day, when we set fires to protest at the growing darkness of winter, when the red poppies we wear throb with the pain of history, when we are full of the sense that the end of the year is nigh.

    And this is an apocalyptic time; this is a time when people at large, the whole world over, see, in the stormy skies and violent tides of contemporary disasters, signs of the end of time; where it is not uncommon to hear talk of apocalypse in the doomsday scenarios of politicians, filmmakers, terrorists and ecologists.

    In recent weeks on the BBC News the word 'apocalyptic' has been used to describe the economic crises in Europe and North America, the scene after the earthquake in the Indian state of Sikkim, riots in London and strikes in South Africa, and of course, 'apocalyptic' has so often been used in recollections of 9/11, an event which for many looked so oddly familiar, an urban catastrophe in a setting just like a Hollywood end-time blockbuster, a cosmic battle between good and evil writ large in a scene of screaming crowds running through broken streets of tumbling buildings, bouncing debris, billowing smoke. [1]

    The major exhibition currently at London's Tate Gallery is called John Martin's Apocalypse, featuring the work of the immensely popular Victorian artist who 'excited mass audiences with his astounding scenes of judgement and damnation ... In a sense ahead of this time, his paintings - full of rugged landscapes and grandiose theatrical spectacle - have an enduring influence on today's cinematic and digital fantasy landscapes.' [2]

    A recent review in The Observer said, 'Martin's paintings anticipate biblical epics and disaster movies and CinemaScope; sci-fi illustrations, concept albums and heavy metal graphics; Spider Man and the avatars of video games. Film directors have acknowledged the immense debt, from DW Griffith to Cecil B DeMille and Roland Emmerich'. [3]

    Our scripture texts for the day are set in a time of apocalypse, because (rather ironically, perhaps) apocalypse has always been with us. People have always had a sense of the end time, end times, or end of days, whether Hollywood doomsday scenarios or those conceived by millenarian cult leaders like Sun Myung Moon or David Koresh; whether the Islamic "Day of Resurrection" or "Day of Judgement", in which Allah's final assessment of humanity is preceded by the end of the world; or Judaism's "End of Days" with the coming of the Messiah; or whether Christianity's Second Coming of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, who will usher in the fullness of the World to Come and Kingdom of God and bring an end to suffering and evil and all things wrong with the current world which is tainted by sin. [4]

    The word Apocalypse has become overused and cheapened today. It has become associated with end-time devastation because some people who have adopted their own form of apocalyptic truth believe that truth justifies their violence against themselves and others - as with those who embrace Christian Zionism, the belief among some Christians that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, is in accordance with Biblical prophecy, that the "ingathering" of Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus, therefore justifying the current aggressive actions of the State of Israel against the people of Palestine. [5]

    But at its root, Apocalypse means a "lifting of the veil" or a "revelation"; it is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. [4]

    And that disclosure is something we earnestly seek. Our scripture texts for the day address a major question for the followers of Jesus and the Christians guided by the letters of Paul: how are we to live in an age of apocalypse? It's a major question for us today.

    We might begin to answer it by embracing one of the major truths of Christian apocalypticism: that our God is a God to be feared. One of the greatest teachers of our times, Mike Yaconelli, once said that
    The tragedy of modern faith is that we no longer are 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 need-centered gospel that attracts thousands...but transforms no one.

    What happened to the bone-chilling, earth-shattering, gut-wrenching, kneeknocking, heart-stopping, life-changing fear that left us speechless, paralysed, 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? 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. 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.

    [Yaconelli wanted] to suggest that the Church become a place of terror again; a place where God continually has to tell us, "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. [Yaconelli was] suggesting that the tame God of relevance be replaced by the God whose very presence shatters our egos into dust, burns our sin into ashes, and strips us naked to reveal the real person within. The Church needs to 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.

    Our world is tired of people whose God is tame. It is longing to see people whose God is big and holy and frightening and gentle and tender... and ours; a God whose love frightens us into His strong and powerful arms where He longs to whisper those terrifying words,"I love you." [6]
    "I love you" - those words are key to our understanding of ourselves in these times. Those words disclose to us what is hidden from the majority of mankind in an era of falsehood and misconception. For Jesus turns the end times into a love story. How are we to live in an age of apocalypse? We are to live in the light of the love of Christ. Holding that flame; walking towards that light.

    In Matthew's gospel reading today, Jesus is taking his disciples away from doomsday scenarios, from end time hypotheses, he is distancing them from Messianic yearnings. Jesus is purging his disciples of cosmic visions of the end time and telling them a very domestic story, a love story, a story about a group of young women preparing for their marriage, a story about them not knowing when their lover would come for them, and so being prepared for a long wait - and indeed, when their lover took rather longer than many of them had thought, it was those who came prepared for that long wait, who he embraced at the end.

    How are we to live in an age of apocalypse? We are to live believing that we are in a love story, which is both divine and domestic, cosmic and everyday. Jesus is the bridegroom and we are his brides; he wants us to live each moment in joyful, loving anticipation of him. 'Keep awake,' says Jesus, '... for you know neither the day nor the hour.'

    In trying to engage the believers in Thessalonica in the question of how they should live in an age of apocalypse, Paul invited them to be encouraged that the awesome God who resurrected Jesus from the dead would bring them with him into the mystery of eternity - a mystery at odds with contemporary descriptions of apocalypse because it didn't describe exactly when or how the Day of the Lordd would come when Christ would return to bring his people to himself; which rather simply reassured the believers that whenever and however that day came, they would be together with all those who have died in the love of Christ. How are we to live in an age of apocalypse? We are to live in the hope, and everyday presence, of eternity. 'We will be with the Lord for ever,' says Paul, '... encourage one another with these words.'

    'We will be with the Lord for ever,' while we set fires to protest at the growing darkness of winter, while we wear red poppies throbbing with the pain of history, while we hear talk of doomsday in connection with economic crises and natural disasters, of riots and terror strikes... while we strive to find love in the face of apocalypse, while we search for our Lord in the face of all this, let us understand: we will be with the Lord for ever, the Lord, our bridegroom, our lover ... and encourage one another with these words.





    Notes

    [1] Based on a search on the BBC News website, 09.00, 5/11/2011
    [2] Tate Britain, John Martin: Apocalypse
    [3] quote from the John Martin: Apocalypse website
    [4] A nod in the direction of the Wikipedia pages on Apocalypse
    [5] Wikipedia, Christian Zionism
    [6] Mike Yaconelli, The Safety of Fear, from Selected Writings, which is available as a download from www.mikeyaconelli.com