Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Sign of the Time

'The Sign of the Time'
- a poem for Advent

Divine Time is not a line,
from Earth to Heaven,
from Hell to redemption.
from here to there,
Divine Time is a circle;
a spiral of turning.
As the seasons turn the year,
the hands of Divine Time
proscribe their journey
from start to start,
and from end to end.
Now is the start,
and now is the end.
'Eternity in each present moment.'

This poem was inspired by tonight's excellent Advent Sermon by Lindsay Meader at St James' Piccadilly.

The last days

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Advent 1 – 30th November 2014

Mark 13.24-37   "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 
28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 
32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Isaiah 64.1-9   O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--  2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

There have always been people
            who have sought to predict the date of the end of the world.
From the prophecies of Nostradamus
            to the date-setting of American doomsday ‘prophet’ Harold Camping,
from seventeenth-century millennialists
            to the tenth-century monk Joachim of Fiore,
from the messianic prophets of first-century Judaism
            to the 2012 end of the Mayan calendar
– there has never been a shortage of people predicting the end of the world.

And yet here we still are, and the world is still turning.

In the twentieth century,
            end of the world prophecies took a technological turn,
and many who grew up in the shadow of the cold war
            genuinely feared the world might imminently end in nuclear holocaust.

In the 1970s it was believed that the world was cooling
            and that a new ice age was coming
            (as Punk Rock group The Clash famously sang in their song London Calling).
The current and genuine fears about global warming and climate change
            inspire similar levels of fear, anxiety, denial, or activism.

And yet, for now, here we still are.

So far no-one has set a date which has been proved right;
            as Jesus says in our gospel reading for today
                        ‘about that day or hour, no one knows,
                        neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son.’
                        (Mark 13.32; cf. Matthew 24:36).

Strictly in the interests of research for this sermon, you understand,
            I spent a few distressing minutes this week researching end-times predictions online.
And I have to say that the world of the contemporary end-times prophet
            is certainly an interesting place to be…

One London pastor and blogger, who had probably better remain nameless,
            runs an end-times ‘news feed’,
                        in which he lists contemporary events that he believes
                        are indicators of the fact that ‘Jesus is Coming Soon’.

Just in case you’re a stranger to this world,
            I thought I’d share some of his evidence of the end times with you…

He describes himself as a
“Pastor & Proclaimer of the Word of God.
Counting down to the return of Jesus Christ
& pointing out the signs along the way.”

Interestingly, he then adds,

“REPENT, for the time is at hand...”

His list of signs of the end times,
            includes the following from just the last few days alone:

45 arrested in Boston yesterday for rioting... 700 miles away from #Ferguson. This has spread right accross the US

Massive earthquake in Indonesia.  7.0 on the richter scale

Bubonic Plague death toll in Madagascar reaches 47

Woman got swallowed by a sinkhole in her garden while hanging the washing out.

Flash floods have killed at least 32 in Morocco today #EndTimes

Volcano erupted in Cape Verde

Earthquake in Japan caused houses to collapse

And so it goes on…

For this blogger, and his many, many followers online,
            human violence and natural disasters
                        are the convincing proof they need
                        to believe that the end of the world is at hand.

Whilst at one level it is fairly easy to deconstruct his logic;
            after all, earthquakes, volcanos, disease, and war are nothing new,
                        and yet, still the end has not come;
nevertheless, the issue of suffering at the hands of humans and nature
            continues to pose a very real question for any of us who seek to hold a belief
            in a God of love and mercy.

In many ways, seeing such events as proof that we live in the ‘end times’
            is a compelling solution to the problem of human suffering;
because it shifts the focus away from us, and our response,
            and puts the emphasis instead onto the outworking of the purposes of God.

In other words, these things must happen before the end,
            because God wills it to be so,
and the fact that they are happening now,
            must mean that the end is nigh…

Many of those who have responded to the problem in this way,
            have been influenced by date-setting end-times prophets,
                        or the many films and books that offer such an interpretation
                        of the relationship between human suffering the end of the world.

The Left Behind series of books and films
            has achieved huge popularity over recent decades,
offering a rapture-based end times reading
            of passages like our Gospel reading for this morning,
            or other similar biblical texts such as the book of Revelation.

And not without good reason or effect,
            because I have a suspicion that if you ask most people
                        what they think Mark 13 is about,
            one of the first things they will say
                        is that it’s about the end of the world.

And it’s true, there is a lot of imagery in this chapter
            that sounds pretty catastrophic
            (‘apocalyptic’, you might say, but we’ll come to that shortly).

However, is it actually accurate to say that it’s about the end of the world?
            Well, yes and no.

If what we mean is,
            ‘is it a kind of “Dummies Guide” to the end of the world?’,
                        then no, it isn’t.
            As those who have tried to make it such can show us,
                        neither Mark chapter 13, nor the book of Revelation itself
            are any better at helping us predict the date of the end of the world
                        than, say, Nostradamus!

This is where our end-times blogger is making his category error;
            he’s treating this chapter, and others like it,
            as a literal prediction of specific events
            that will precede the ending of the world.

However, there may be another way of looking at this chapter,
            where it can indeed speak to us very powerfully about the end of the world.

Have you ever heard someone say,
            perhaps after a tragic bereavement or a serious illness,
                        ‘it was the end of the world’?

They clearly don’t mean that the world has literally ended,
            and to assume they did would be to miss their point.

What they mean is that the world as they knew it has gone,
            and they are now living in a new world,
                        a world that, is in a very real sense,
                        different to the world that they lived in before.

Of course such world-ending, or world-transforming, events
            aren’t always tragic or traumatic,
sometimes it can be a positive thing that ends one world and starts another,
            think of the unexpected lottery win,
            or falling in love, or becoming a parent.
The old world ends, and a new world begins.

So when the New Testament uses imagery and language
            about the end of the world,
it is telling its readers that if they understand its message,
            if they spend time with its prophetic images,
they too will experience ‘the end of the world’,
            as their old world is brought to an end,
            and they find ourselves entering a new world
                        in which Jesus Christ is at the centre of creation,
                        drawing all things and all people to himself.

Those who have sought to confine such passages
            to the realm of predictive prophecy
make it of greatest relevance to those
            who find themselves living in the ‘last days’ of planet Earth.

And the difficulty with this is that they run the risk of alienating
            the vast swathe of humanity
                        (probably including ourselves, unless we really are the ‘last generation’)
            who have been born, lived, and died
                        within the normal course of history.

Christians usually assert that the Bible is of equal relevance to all,
            whether you live and die in the first, eleventh or twenty-first centuries.
So, if it is to be of relevance to all generations,
            not just the last generation,
and if it proclaims a message of world-ending significance
            rather than simply predicting the end of the world,
what is it that is so special about the message of a passage such as Mark 13?

Well, I think Ruth was very helpful last week,
            when she suggested that one of the ways of reading such sections of scripture
is to see them as similar to the story of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’,
            where the vision of the future that is shown to Ebenezer Scrooge
            by the ghost of Christmas yet to come,
                        is not prediction of what must take place,
            but rather shows the consequences that will arise
                        from the choices Ebenezer will make.

The intent of the vision that he is shown
            is to produce in him a change of behaviour;
it is to get him to ‘repent’ of his scrooge-like behaviour,
            and to start living a life of generosity and care for his fellow humans.

In other words, it is to bring his world of mean-ness to an end,
            and to bring into being a new world of kind-ness.

It is exactly the same with Mark 13,
            as it is for other similar texts such as the book of Revelation.

The descriptions of suffering and tribulation
            that we find in the apocalyptic tradition of the New Testament,
are not to be heard as expressions of the vengeance of God,
            but rather should be seen as the suffering caused by
                        - as Robert Hammerton Kelly puts it -
            ‘wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes,
                        misunderstandings, and persecutions’

The very human and very troubling question,
            of where God is to be found in the midst of human suffering,
is not answered by seeing God as the instigator of that suffering,
            but rather as the one who suffers alongside us
            in the shared tribulations of our fallen human condition.

This is not a cross God,
            it is the God of the cross.

Some of us here may remember the news reports from 1966,
            when, over a period of five minutes,
            the coal tip above the Welsh mining village of Aberfan,
            slid down the mountain and engulfed a farm, several houses, and a school.
In total, 116 children and 28 adults were killed.

The question which many asked, quite rightly, was:
            where was God at Aberfan?

An end-times blogger might see such an event
            as further proof that we live in the last days,
with tragedies such as this happening in fulfilment
            of the prophecies of scripture.

But I think a more helpful perspective comes from the theologian W H Vanstone,
            who offered the following reflection on the question
            of where God is to be found in the midst of suffering. He said,

 ‘We believe that at the moment when the mountain of Aberfan slipped,
            “something went wrong”.
Our faith is in a Creator who does not abandon even this,
            nor those who suffered, wept and died in it.
Our preaching on the Sunday after the tragedy was not of a God
            who, from the top of the mountain, caused or permitted,
            for his own inscrutable reasons, its disruption and descent;
but of one who received, at the foot of the mountain, its appalling impact
            and who, in the extremity of endeavour,
            will find yet new resources to restore and redeem.’

If our view of God is one that expects him to intervene in power
            to stop the vicious cycles of human suffering,
            then we are worshipping the wrong God.

The ‘intervention of God’ is that which we see in Christ,
            where God comes to his people not in vengeful wrath,
            but rather to suffer with us, and to redeem our fragility and frailty.

The sufferings of humanity depicted in the Apocalyptic tradition
            point us not to violence of divine origin,
but to the sufferings brought about by humans themselves
            as they resist the in-breaking the Kingdom of God
            and live out their humanity in imitation of a violent God of their own making.

Sadly predictable human failings cause human suffering on a global scale
            without any divine intervention needed.
And, time and again, it is the innocent who suffer.

From children whose school was sited beneath an unstable coal tip,
            to impoverished subsistence farmers
                        forced to live in areas prone to flooding as sea levels rise,
            to Syrian refugees,
                        to aid workers,
            to people who are simply on the unlucky bus, or tube,
                        or in the wrong building at the wrong time.

The powerful flex their muscles,
            and the innocent suffer.

And where is God in the midst of all this suffering?

Well, this is a good question,
            for us on this first Sunday of Advent.

In the deepening darkness of the world,
            where is God to be found?

The prophet Isaiah wrestles with this question
            in our Old Testament text,
as he addresses God’s seeming absence from his people,
            and articulates a desperate longing
                        that God would dramatically intervene in human affairs,
            tearing open the heavens and coming down
                        with such force that the mountains would quake at his presence (Isa 64.1).

The Advent prayer of, ‘Come Lord, come quickly’
            is the prayer of desperate longing.
It is a prayer born of an experience of the absence of God.

In our evening ‘Informal Church’ services,
            we always have a time of quiet reflection,
where we ask people to think about where, over the last week,
            they have met with God.
But then we follow this up with another, possibly more difficult question,
            of where, over the last week, have we been,
            but have not met with God.

Or, to put it another way,
            where have we experienced the absence of God;
where have we wanted to share with Jesus and the Psalmist
            the cry of desolation ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

And sometimes the desperate longing of our souls
            to experience God in the midst of Godless suffering and pain
                        may simply need to be held in mystery.
            Sometimes we have to wait through holy Saturday
                        for the day of resurrection to come.

But sometimes we may discover that God appears absent from our lives,
            because we have been looking for the wrong God.
We may discover that we have been looking at the top of a mountain
            for a God who sends a coal tip down onto a school,
when God is actually to be found at the bottom of a mountain,
            in the mud, and terror, and death of human suffering.

As humans we have an inbuilt tendency to idolatry,
            we find it all too easy to worship the wrong God.
The story of the fall from the opening chapters of Genesis
            vividly explores the human experience
            of seeming hard-wired for idolatry.
We so often look for the wrong God,
            in the wrong places, and from the wrong perspectives.

And so it was that the longed-for Christ was born,
            not in the palace where the wise men first sought him,
            but in poverty to a refugee family,
The coming of Christ marks the beginning of a new humanity,
            one which is focussed on the true God of love
            rather than the many gods of violence that we so readily construct in our own image.

The Advent of the ‘second Adam’, as Paul calls Jesus (1 Cor. 15.45),
            opens before us a new way of being human
            which is not dominated by the violent idolatry of the first Adam,
because the Advent of Jesus reveals God to be the God of the bottom of the mountain,
            rather than the top.

If we are looking for a god who comes in might,
            to violently liberate us from our enemies,
                        and to extract revenge on those who oppress us,
            then yes, that God is absent.

However, if we are looking for the God of the victims,
            then we may discover that he has been with us all the time.
And if he is hidden from our eyes,
            it is because our eyes have not yet been opened to the true God,
                        who comes, not to fight for right,
            but to redeem suffering and restore humanity.

The God who comes to us in Jesus,
            and who goes to the cross in pain and suffering,
                        is a God, not of violence, but of non-violence.
The God who is revealed in Christ,
            is not a God who is passively indifferent to human suffering,
but one who takes positive action
            to enter into our suffering bringing redemption to all.

The apocalyptic tradition which we meet in Mark chapter 13,
            unveils the true nature of the God who comes to humanity in Christ.
And it challenges us all to see the world unmasked,
            to see God as God is, and not as we would construct him,
            to see the Son of Man revealed in Christ Jesus,
                        who comes to us in weakness and humility,
            to see the signs of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven,
                        redeeming and transforming the world,
            to keep awake when others slumber,
                        to not let ourselves be lulled into a stupor of indifference,
                                    but to keep hope alive and faith active.

The apocalyptic unveiling of the world
            reveals to us a God who is not found along the well trodden paths of violence.
And as we see God in Christ Jesus we come to realise that all attempts
            to simply contain our human desire for dominance over another
            are ultimately fruitless in releasing us from the hold that sin has over our lives.

Any attempt by humans to sanction violence,
            whether through secular legitimation
                        or sacred justification,
            simply opens the door to the profanity of further bloodshed.

What we need, to be fully free before God, is re-creation,
            we need the radical transformation,
that comes through the ending of one world
            and the inauguration of a new world.

We need violence transformed,
            and suffering redeemed.
We need humanity recreated,
            and the world reborn.

And this is the vision of Mark 13,
            not as a future hope,
but as a present reality, coming into being in our midst,
            as we enter the new world and live its reality into being in our lives.

The end times are at hand,
            the old is gone, and the new has come.

As Jesus puts it;

‘in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
            and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
            and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.’