Sunday, 18 August 2019

Decluttering our Spiritual Life

The Parable of the Treasure in the Field

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
18th August 2019

Matthew 13.34-5, 44, 51-53

Here’s a question arising from our gospel reading this morning:
            What is it that sparks joy in your life?

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
            which someone found and hid;
then *in his joy* he goes and sells all that he has
            and buys that field.”

And if you think you’ve heard this idea before:
            of giving things up or away,
            to increase the joy you have in your life,
maybe you’ve been watching or reading Marie Kondo?

Konmarie is known as an ‘organising’ consultant,
            and in addition to demonstrating nifty new ways to fold your underwear,
she is probably best known for helping people
            to declutter their houses and lives.

Her mantra is very simple, it is that we should learn to:
            “Discard everything in life that does not spark joy.”

In her book, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’,
            she offers some words of wisdom for those of us who are possession-obsessives,
and I think these carry strong echoes
            of what Jesus might be saying to us this morning
            through his little parable of the treasure in the field.

In many ways, each of these quotes is a mini-parable in itself
            helping us understand the one told by Jesus.

She says,

“The question of what you want to own
            is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

“No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.
            The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.”

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart.
            Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”

“There are two reasons we can’t let go:  an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

I’m going to leave these quotes up on the screens for a while,
            so we can have them in our minds,
as we think further about what Jesus was getting at in his parable
            of the treasure hidden in the field.

And the first thing I want to address is the tension between sacrifice and joy.

Christians often talk about sacrifice,
            and when we do it’s usually couched in terms
which seem to suggest that giving something up
            has to hurt in some way, for it to be sacrificial.

You’ll get this sometimes, for example, when we talk about money,
            and people might suggest that for our giving to be sacrificial
                        it has to involve going without something.
            We have to notice the loss:
                        Simply giving out of our surplus or our loose change
                        is not, generally, regarded as ‘sacrificial’.

And whilst there is something in this:
            I do agree that a sacrifice ought to make a noticeable difference,
I think Jesus’ parable offers us a way of looking at things
            where sacrifice is joyful rather than painful.

I’m not sure that it’s true to say, as far as sacrifice is concerned,
            that ‘if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working’.

What if giving it all up for the kingdom of heaven,
            is not a self-flagellating, hair-shirt experience,
but is rather a shedding of those things in life that sap our joy,
            that keep us from the greater joy of the coming kingdom?

What if sacrificing to achieve the kingdom
            is a joy-full experience, rather than joy-less one?

Think for a moment of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler,
            which we find a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel (19.16-22).

The young man wants to know what he must to do inherit the kingdom of heaven,
            and Jesus first tells him to keep the commandments,
            which the young man says he has done since childhood.

Jesus then says to him,
"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Matt. 19:21-22 NRS)

This young man had become so addicted to his things,
            that he could not let go of them
            to experience the greater joy of following Jesus.

And the tragedy of this is that for all his wealth,
            he remained desperately sad, and went away grieving.

He couldn’t bear the loss of his possessions,
            and so he lost the joy of the kingdom
            that he had been striving for since childhood.

And it is worth us taking a moment here for some personal reflection,
            about the relationship we have to our things, to our possessions.

Some of us have many things,
            which we have accumulated over a lifetime,
some of us are hoarders,
            and grieve at the very thought of letting some of it go,
some of us worry all the time about money, and possessions,
            because we don’t have enough, and we are scared of poverty,
and some of us have practically nothing to call our own,
            and don’t know where our security for the future will ever be found.

And I wonder what would it mean for us,
            wherever we sit on the spectrum of ownership,
to hear Jesus saying that there is always a greater treasure
            to be found in the kingdom of heaven,
than any that we might strive for in other ways through our lives?

We carry the burden of belonging with us,
            whether it’s the burden of too much, or the burden of too little,
we carry burdens of guilt and fear,
            burdens of inadequacy and low self esteem,
and these burdens weigh us down,
            they sap the joy of our lives,
            and weary us with their heavy load.

And I wonder what joy there may be to experience
            in the letting go of the burdens we carry?

What would it be like for us to let go, to declutter,
            to shed our physical, financial, and emotional burdens?

Do you remember the story of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan,
            whose statue is still on the front of the old Baptist House building
            just round the corner from here in Southampton Row?

Bunyan says,

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which CHRISTIAN was to go..
            Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run;
                        but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross,
            his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back,
                        and began to tumble;
            and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the [tomb],
                        where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome,
            and … with a merry heart…
Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder;
            for it was very surprising to him,
            that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden.
He looked therefore, and looked again,
            even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.

Christian literally cries with joy
            that the burden he has carried through life
            is lifted from him and falls into a grave never to be seen again.

Or you may remember the scene in the film The Mission,
            where the slave-trader Mendoza, played by Jeremy Irons,
takes three days to climb the Iguazu Falls carrying a heavy load
            a sack containing the swords, armour and weapons
            that symbolise his old life.
When he finally makes it to the top,
            the Guarani people who he had previously killed and enslaved
            are waiting for him,
but instead of killing him,
            they cut the load from his back and push it off the cliff towards the river,
releasing him from the guilt and pain
            of his former life.

For Mendoza, joy is found in receiving forgiveness,
            and releasing the burden of a life lived in the selfish pursuit of power and wealth.

So, when Jesus says,

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
            which someone found and hid;
then *in his joy* he goes and sells all that he has
            and buys that field.”

I wonder what it is that you have, that I have,
            that we, I, need to let go of, to get rid of,
            in order to obtain the joy of the kingdom of heaven?

What am I carrying, what are you carrying,
            that saps the joy of life?

And what about us as a church?
            What is it that we are carrying and accommodating in our life together
            that sap our collective joy of the kingdom?

Is it our middle-class guilt?

Is it our concerns about the state of the world,
            and our inability to solve all of the problems before us,
            let alone those in places further afield?

Do the hurts and harms of the years
            intrude on our community life together,
keeping us from loving each other
            and trusting one another with the deep mysteries of our hearts?

Here’s a question:
            How do you feel when you come to church?
Do you feel joyful?

I ask this not to make anyone feel guilty:
            this isn’t a kind of ‘be joyful or else!’ sermon.

But if you don’t feel joyful when you contemplate coming to church,
            it might be worth paying attention to why not?

What are you carrying, what are we carrying,
            that saps the joy of the kingdom?

What do we need to let go of, to release from our lives and our life together,
            to discover the deep joy of the treasure of the kingdom of God?

But there is more to this parable than an invitation to joyful living,
            profound though that may be.

There is something here about the very nature of the kingdom itself,
            which is that it is an activity, not a thing.

The kingdom of heaven is a verb, not a noun,
            and it is discovered through the action of doing,
            not through the state of possessing.

You see, this is not a parable about the treasure:
            The kingdom of heaven is not like a valuable but hidden thing.
Rather, what the kingdom is like is the behaviour of the finder:
            the kingdom is active, not passive.

It is seeking and finding,
            it is asking and receiving,
                        it is knocking and being answered.

The kingdom is about behaviour,
            it is a way of being, a life to be enacted.

And yet too often we reduce the kingdom to a thing,
            we make the kingdom the treasure,
            not the action of discovering the treasure.

Think for a moment of your most precious thing…
            What would you rush back to save from a burning building?
Would it be your photographs?
            Or something of great sentimental value?

I wonder what the equivalent would be for you,
            in terms of your experience of the life of faith?

What do you most struggle to let go of?

For some of us it will be a particular theological or ethical conviction:
            we just cannot imagine faith if we no longer believe that.

For some of us it will be a specific way of encountering God:
            we just cannot see how God can be met unless I can do this.

For some of us it will be a particular style of building,
            or worship, or prayer, or community, or whatever….

Well, however much these things mean to us,
            however valuable they are to us,
we must never make the mistake of thinking
            that they are the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom is not the treasure,
            the kingdom is the finding of the treasure,
and it is the joy that overrides all other passions and desires
            as we relentlessly pursue that which we have discovered.

Have you found yourself wondering yet,
            just what this treasure was doing in the field in the first place?
Whose was it originally?
            Why has it been buried?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t make a habit
            of burying my precious things in the ground.

However, in many places around the world,
            the only way to keep treasure safe is to bury it,
in the hope that thieves and invading armies
            will pass over and leave the wealth that can be retrieved later.

And of course, many of the great treasure hordes
            that have been discovered in this country,
owe their origin to someone burying them to keep them safe,
            but then never returning to retrieve their property.

We even have complex treasure trove laws
            which govern what happens when someone finds treasure in a field,
balancing the claims of the finder, the landowner, and the crown,
            depending on the age of the horde,
            and the intent of the person who buried it in the first place

It seems that in the first century,
            the law was rather more straightforward,
            and it wasn’t a simple case of finders’ keepers.

Rather, treasure in a field belonged to the person who owned the field,
            which is why the person has to buy the field
                        before retrieving the treasure,
            otherwise they could have been accused of theft.

The dubious morality of buying the field without telling the owner what’s in it,
            isn’t part of the story as Jesus tells it,
            and we probably shouldn’t make too much of that.

Rather, Jesus uses the story to make his point about giving things up
            in order to enter into the joy of acquiring the kingdom.

But there is something important here about the hiddenness of the treasure
            that it’s worth reflecting on a bit further.

You may remember hearing me use the term ‘realised eschatology’ before,
            and this is the idea that the future is realised in the present.

What this means is that instead of living for some future time,
            when wrongs are righted and sins are forgiven,
we instead start to live in the present world
            the truth of that which we hope for.

If we apply this way of thinking to the treasure hidden in the field,
            we get a perspective on the kingdom of heaven
                        where it is present already in the world,
                        awaiting recognition of its value,
                        and the radical action that it’s discovery deserves.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future state,
            which we enter into when we die, or in some age to come;
rather it is here and now,
            it is within us and amongst us,
it is hard to see because it is hidden,
            but when we find it, it puts all other treasures in our lives into perspective.

Too often Christianity is negative about the here-and-now,
            and many Christians write off today as unimportant
            compared to the focus on a future of promised glory.

Too often Christianity is about saving people from some imagined hell in the hereafter,
            rather than about saving people from the very real hell
            of the tragedy and trauma of life in the present.

And against this, Jesus told his little story of a treasure hidden in a field,
            to announce the presence of the kingdom in the physical stuff of this present world.

The kingdom is not future, it is there, just there, in the field,
            overlooked by most, but you don’t have to dig very deep to discover it.

Jesus’ parable is told to encourage people
            to seek the kingdom, to experience the joy of discovery,
            and to then take the radical action that such a discovery requires.

Entering with Jesus into the kingdom of heaven
            is a life lived today, here, and now;
and it is a process that releases us from our burdens,
            and gives us great joy.

So how do we do this?
            What does this look like in practice?

For the rich young man it would have meant selling all he had,
            and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

For some of us it will mean letting go of things that have been precious to us,
            to discover the greater treasure that lies in wait for us.
For some of us it will be receiving release from burdens we have been carrying,
            and the discovery of a life of lightness and joy experienced in forgiveness.
For some of us it will be the renewal of our relationships,
            and the restoration of joy to the community we belong to.

And none of this happens by accident.

The person in the parable took decisive action
            once they had discovered the treasure,
to ensure that it was theirs eternally.

We too may need to take action:
            we may need to take decisions about priorities,
            we may need to decide to give things up,
            we may need to declutter our physical and emotional lives.

Jesus said to his disciples,
            "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven
                        is like the master of a household
            who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

The kingdom of heaven doesn’t happen by accident,
            it happens as we train ourselves for it,
learning from the wisdom of our tradition,
            and creatively bringing that to bear on the here-and-now of our world.

And so we come, at last, to our reading from the book of Proverbs,
            which is always a good field in which to go hunting for treasure.

Proverbs 2
My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you,
 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;
 3 if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding;
 4 if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures--
 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path;

Listening carefully for wisdom
            and opening our hearts to understanding,
crying out for insight,
            and treasuring the commands of the God,

These are the prescription for a life of joy,
            and through them comes the joyful fruit,
            of righteousness, and justice, and equity, and every good path.

This, truly is treasure beyond price,
            and worth seeking with all our hearts.


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Apocalypse Now #7: Heaven's Perspective on the Environment

Revelation 16

Listen to this sermon here:

Did you see the news this week?
            The intergovernmental panel on climate change report for the United Nations
            has found that ecosystems around the world
                        have never before been under such threat,
            and that the climate crisis is damaging the ability of land to sustain humanity.

Some of the world’s top scientists collaborated in the report,
            and they warn that cascading risks are becoming increasingly severe
                        as global temperatures rise,
            with droughts, soil erosion and wildfires increasing,
                        crop yields decreasing,
            and thawing permafrost near the poles.

Meanwhile, I had a long conversation with someone who directed me, approvingly,
            to Piers Corbyn’s assertion that ‘man made climate change doesn’t exist’,
                        and that rather stories of climate change
                        are the product of journalists rather than scientists.

Who are you gonna believe??
            To play my hand early, I tend, strongly, towards believing the scientists….

And this sermon finds its origin in my own very personal engagement
            with the topic of global warming
            and its attendant environmental devastation.

For some time I found myself obsessed, even depressed,
            as I sought to get my mind around the emotions I was experiencing
            whenever I contemplated this troubling reality.
Sleepless nights and panic attacks ensued,
            and I had to ask why it should be
            that I was responding with such uncharacteristic intensity.

Initially I wondered if it was as simple as being afraid of dying,
            but concluded that this was not the case
                        as no-one who rode a high performance motorbike for many years
                        can ever be entirely risk-averse.
Neither was it a fear about the end of the world:
            growing up in the shadow of the cold war
            adjusted me to that terror at an early age.

In time, I had a moment of what you might call ‘revelation’.
            I realised that I had fallen in love with Babylon,
                        and that, like the merchants and seafarers of Revelation 18.9-19,
            I was grieving the loss of my beloved empire.

Revelation 18:9-11, 15-19  the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with [Babylon], will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning;  10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, "Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come."  11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore… 

15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,  16 "Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!  17 For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!" And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off  18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, "What city was like the great city?"  19 And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, "Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste."

Images of environmental judgment

The scenes of environmental destruction found in The Book of Revelation
            form part of the broader picture
            of the author’s representation of divine judgment on evil.

The various images of judgment which he utilises
            serve a double purpose:

On the one hand, they demonstrate that evil in all its forms
            will not be allowed to continue into eternity (cf. 19.20; 20.10, 14),

while on the other hand they serve as warnings
            intended to provoke repentance
            on the part of the nations of the earth (cf. 9.20-21; 11.13; 16.9-11).

The images of final judgment offer John’s readers an assurance that,
            however powerful the forces currently opposing their faithful witness,
these satanic systems will ultimately be called to account
            for their opposition to God’s in-breaking kingdom.

However, it is in the images of warning judgment
            that John depicts the desolation of the created order
            along with humanity itself.

Environmental damage and human suffering
            are presented as inseparable partners.

In the sequences of seals, trumpets and bowls,
            John depicts scenes of environmental devastation with increasing intensity.

The opening of the sixth seal triggers the shaking of the entire cosmos,
            with a great earthquake,

            the darkening of sun and moon,
            stars falling to the earth, the sky being rolled away,
            and every mountain and island being displaced (Rev. 6.12-14).

The sounding of the trumpets leads to
            the burning away of a third of the earth, trees, and all green grass,
            the death of a third of all sea creatures,
                        the poisoning of the earth’s waters,
            and the darkening of a third of the sun, moon and stars (Rev. 8.7-12).

The pouring out of the bowls, which we heard in our reading this morning, triggers
            the death of every living thing in the sea,
            the poisoning of all waters,
                        burning from an intensified sun,
                        and a time of darkness (Rev. 16.2-12).

These visions of environmental destruction
            are each interspersed with scenes of judgment on humanity,
with the entire created order depicted
            as suffering the effects of humanity’s rejection of God.

John’s intent in constructing these images of warning judgment,
            encompassing the entire creation in their scope,
was to provide his audience
            with an alternative perspective on their current earthly situation.

From the perspective of those
            in the seven cities of Asia Minor to whom John was writing,
the unbridled expansion of the Graeco-Roman
            cultural, economic and military empire
            could appear a noble and beneficent project.

However, when viewed through John’s visionary lens,
            the imperial machine is seen as a corrupting whore
                        and a violent beast (chapters 13, 17-18),
            demeaning or destroying all those who come into contact with it.[1]

The series’ of judgments on the earth
            thus represent John’s vision
            of the inevitable end-result of the human obsession with empire.

Whether it be the death of a third of humankind through war (Rev. 9.15, 18),
            or environmental devastation on a global scale,
these are to be seen as the direct consequences
            of human imperial aspiration.

In his subversive portrayal of empire
            as a violent and destructive system,
John provides a powerful critique of all such systems
            which seek to centralise wealth and privilege
            at the expense of exploitation at the margins.

The call to repentance
Simply portraying the effects of empire
            through images of suffering and destruction
            is however not sufficient for John.

He also offers a theological commentary
            on the globally catastrophic results of empire,
lamenting that those who have experienced the judgments
            still ‘did not repent’ (Rev. 9.20, 21; 16.9, 11).

Within John’s scheme,
            the judgments are not personally targeted punishments
                        aimed at those who have denied the lordship of Christ,
            neither are they God punishing the earth
                        for its opposition to the kingdom of Christ.

Rather, they are presented as warnings to the nations
            of the effects of their ongoing investment in empire,
in the hope that the nations of the earth will ‘repent’
            and turn from their exploitative and destructive practices.

The tragedy of John’s presentation
            is that the nations remain unrepentant
            in the face of the warning judgments.

He portrays the imperial aspirations of the nations as so all-pervasive
            that, even when faced with increasing levels
                        of human and environmental catastrophe,
            still they remain committed to the exploitative practices of empire.

In this way, kings, merchants and seafarers
            are heard mourning the destruction of Babylon,
because they have so invested themselves
            in the economic systems of empire
that they are unable to comprehend its ending
            as anything other than disaster (Rev. 18.9-19).

This is in contrast to the response which John expects
            of those who have entered with him into his visionary world
            to gain heaven’s perspective on empire.

They are invited to,
            ‘Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets!
            For God has given judgment for you against her’ (Rev. 18.20).

But if the nations fail to heed the warnings,
            John offers a bleak assessment of the future of the empire
            in which they are investing themselves.

It is portrayed as an ultimately self-destructive system,
            which begets violence, suffering and environmental catastrophe.

Against this background John offers his theological assertion
            that systems of oppression and destruction
            will themselves ultimately face judgment,
something which he vividly depicts in the vision
            of the destruction of the great whore and the great city (Revelation 17-18).

Ian Boxall puts it well when he says:
            ‘Evil and injustice bear within themselves the seeds of their own destruction,
            and ultimately the whole edifice will come tumbling down.’[2]

The extent of environmental judgment
One could be forgiven for thinking at this point that,
            from an environmental perspective, all is lost.

After all, if the nations remain unrepentant
            in the face of the increasingly severe
                        and catastrophic results of their actions,
            surely the end result will be the breakdown
                        of the entire created order?

However, John does not leave his audience
            with a scenario of ecological despair.

From John’s perspective, God has not yet written off creation
            as irredeemably tainted by human sin
            and therefore destined for destruction.

The destruction of the destructive systems
            might be bad news for those who have invested heavily in them,
            but it is good news for the rest of creation.

The judgments against the environment which John describes are not total,
            and it is ultimately Babylon, the satanic empire,
            which is destroyed rather than the earth.

In this way, the results of imperial ecological devastation
            are seen to be limited rather than limitless:

The four angels who have power to damage earth and sea
            are restrained from harming the sea and the trees (Rev. 7.3);
at the sounding of the trumpets
            it is only a third of the earth which is destroyed (Rev. 8.7-12; 9.15-18);
and the locusts from the bottomless pit are told not to damage the grass
            or any green growth or any tree (Rev. 9.4).

The warning judgments of environmental destruction which John describes
            are thus severe, but restricted.

Rather than depicting a downward spiral resulting in the end of the world,
            John rather presents the effects of imperial ecological violence
                        as warnings to be heard alongside
                        his repeated call for ‘repentance’ (cf. Rev. 2.5, 16, 21-22; 3.3, 19).

John’s scheme thus finds clear echoes
            in the contemporary prophetic call for imperial environmental ‘repentance’,
that ‘there is still time to avoid
            the worst impacts of climate change if we act now’.[3]

The end of environmental exploitation
The hope which John presents is not restricted
            to mere divine limitation
            of the extent of environmental damage.

Rather, John points to divine judgment
            on those very systems which oppress and destroy creation.

Following the seventh trumpet,
            the twenty-four elders sing that the time has come,
            ‘for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Rev. 11.18).

The destruction of Babylon represents, for John,
            the final and fitting judgment on empire.

Those systems which have placed themselves
            in opposition to the peace and stability of creation
            are, it seems, not eternal.

John also presents a positive role for creation.

As a counterpart to his negative vision
            of the destruction of the ecologically destructive empire,
John recalls God’s promise to Noah
            that he will remain faithful to creation
in the description of the rainbow around the divine throne
            (Rev. 4.3; cf. Ezek. 1.28; Gen. 9.13-16).

The earth itself is seen playing an active part
            in the rescue of humanity from the attack of the satanic beast,
            swallowing the river sent from the mouth of the dragon (Rev. 12.15),
while the whole of creation participates
            in the offering of worship
            to the one seated on the divine throne (Rev. 5.13; cf. Phil. 2.10).

The four living creatures before the heavenly throne (Rev. 4.6ff)
            depict the whole created order
            offering a united song of worship before the throne.

In addition to the worship of humanity,
            John also shows us the worship of
                        all the wild creatures symbolised by the lion,
                        all the domesticated animals symbolised by the cow
                        and all birds symbolised by the eagle.

Just as an aside here,
            the association of these four creatures with the authors of the four gospels
is something which occurs much later in the Christian tradition,
            and can’t have been in John’s mind when he wrote Revelation,
            not least because at least two of the Gospels hadn’t been written yet!

Anyway, back to the four living creatures;
it is significant that only one of them has a human face (Rev. 4.7),
            indicating that the worship offered by those on the earth
                        is merely one facet of the totality of worship
            offered to God by the whole of creation.

Through all these various images,
            which as always in Revelation pile up upon each other, ,
with images of destruction interspersed with images of hope,
            and images of judgment sitting alongside images of mercy,
creation is seen as having a hopeful, rather than a hopeless, future.

Rather than facing eventual destruction
            at the hands of human imperial exploitation,
creation is seen to have an active role
            in drawing all things towards unity with the creator.

We’re not so far here from the language of mother earth,
            such as the Greek myth of Gaia, the primal earth goddess.
which of course gave the name to the Gaia hypothesis,
            which suggests that all living things and the planet they live on
                        are inextricably linked,
            working together for the greater good of all things.

In John’s thinking in Revelation,
            he violence which the environment endures at the hands of humanity
                        points the way to a new future
                        beyond slavery to the forces of empire.

Once released from the tyranny of the satanic powers which oppress and destroy,
            creation can be freed to fulfil its function
            as the context for a renewed relationship between humanity and God.

A new heaven and a new earth
John’s image of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21.1-5; cf. Isa. 65.17-25)
             represents his vision of what it means for humanity
                        to ‘repent’ of their obsession with empire,
            learning to live in a new relationship
                        with both creation and creator.

The transition to the new heaven and new earth
            is not one which involves the total destruction
                        of the existing created order
            before re-creation can occur.

Rather, the new creation is brought into being
            as the oppressive powers of the satanic empire are destroyed.

The picture which John draws of the new earth
            is therefore one which encompasses
            redeemed aspects of the present earth.

The vision of the new heaven and the new earth,
            with the new Jerusalem at their centre,
            is primarily a vision for the here-and-now of John’s audience.

It presents them with a challenge
            that they are to be those who give testimony
                        to the in-breaking kingdom of God,
            those who live as citizens of new Jerusalem
                        rather than as citizens of Babylon.

The renewal of the created order
            is therefore not something to be anticipated
                        at some decisive point in the future,
            as the divine answer to the environmental destructions wrought by empire.

Rather, it is to be found in the present
            as the idolatrous claims of the satanic empire
                        are exposed, opposed and rejected,
            and as humanity responds to the prophetic witness
                        to the existence of an alternative
                        to slavish devotion to the beast of empire.

The prophetic call
By this reading of the book of Revelation,
            the hope for creation-under-empire
lies in John’s prophetic challenge
            to the destructive ideology of empire.

It is only once the idolatrous claims of Babylon are rejected
            that a new relationship between humanity and creation becomes possible.

Within John’s scheme, it is when God is named as lord of creation
            that the idolatrous powers of empire are challenged (Rev. 3.14; 10.6; 11.4; 14.7).

In this way, the many worship scenes of Revelation
            acquire distinctly political overtones,
as they challenge the dominant oppressive and destructive powers in the world.

Worship in Revelation is therefore not about making God feel good about himself,
            it is about reversing the effects of the fall.

As God is named lord of creation,
            the idolatrous imperial aspirations of humanity are challenged,
and the way is cleared for humanity, God and creation
            to recover that which was lost at Eden.

The new song which only the 144,000 can sing (Rev. 14.3)
            therefore becomes a song of prophetic challenge,
with those who recognize the lordship of the one on the throne in heaven
            challenging the nations of the earth to join them
            in resisting the seductive yet destructive call of the satanic empire.

The sequences of warning judgments,
            calling the nations to repentance of their imperial idolatry,
pave the way for the ultimate judgment
            on those satanic systems which oppress and destroy.

Within John’s symbolic world, creation is finally and fully freed from satanic oppression
            as the forces of empire are destroyed at the great battle of Armageddon.

The armies of the kings of the earth are defeated
            by the sword that comes from the mouth of the rider on the white horse,
with the word of God from the mouth of the messiah
            victorious over the satanic deceptions of the beast (19.21).

The imperial forces which destroy the created order,
            oppress humanity, and violently suppress opposition
are ironically seen to be themselves destroyed
            by nothing other than the ‘gospel’ itself.

Though John’s own antidote to imperial idolatry
            involves an acknowledgement of the lordship of the divine figure
                        on the heavenly throne
            as a precursor to the redemption of creation,
his work also makes a powerful environmental critique of empire
            available to a wider humanity.

Although John was writing to those
            within the Christian congregations of first century Asia Minor,
nonetheless his prophetic call to the church,
            to enact a faithful witness
            to a non-exploitative view of humanity and the earth,
retains a clear challenge to the contemporary world.

John’s call to ‘come out’ of Babylon (Rev. 18.4),
            coupled with his presentation of empire as a destructive,
                        and ultimately self-destructive, system
present a persistent challenge to those of us
            who want to combine an enjoyment of life-under-empire
            with a concern for environmental justice.

Bloomsbury is already committed to the task of working out
            how to exist as a more environmentally friendly community.
We are pleased to have been awarded the Bronze Echo Church standard,
            but there is much more that we can still do.

And over the next couple of years,
            I firmly hope that we will continue to explore ways
                        of acting together
            to bring about a more peaceful approach
                        to the world that God has entrusted to us.

Harnessing the strengths of empire
            in the search for solutions to pressing environmental concerns
            may or may not solve our imminent problems;

but in the long-term, those who dance with empire
            still end up embracing Babylon.


[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, New Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 17-18, 35-36.
[2] Ian Boxall, The Revelation of St John, ed. Morna Hooker, Black's New Testament Commentaries (London: Continuum, 2006), 249.
[3] Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Report into climate change.