Sunday, April 17, 2016

Looking to the end

A Sermon preached on April 17th, Easter IV, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

So, this morning I thought I would talk about eschatology. Eschatology is the theology of the last things or the end times and not to be confused with escapology, which is what Houdini did when he escaped from chains and locked boxes. Although for some people, eschatology is a form of escapism, a way of ignoring or denying current problems by pushing them into the far, far future. 

Eschatology permeates the Bible. It is in the Old Testament, you find it in all the books of the prophets, especially in the Book of Daniel in his wonderful vision of one like a Son of Man coming “with the clouds of heaven, and he came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve him.” (Daniel 7:13-14) Eschatology is part of the Lord's Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Jesus often talks about the end times: “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27) Paul writes about the last things: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) And the whole book of Revelation is about the end. At its core, eschatology is simply a reminder that God not only has the first word, but also the last word. And that is a good thing!

What is not always a good thing however, is how some Christians approach eschatology in general, and the Book of Revelation in particular. One article I recently read summarized the problem very nicely: “the expectation of other-worldly realities quickly degenerates into an ethically, politically, or ecologically irresponsible attitude to the here and now.” By that the author meant the tendency to simply withdraw from practical, social, and political concerns, or to tolerate conditions of injustice and oppression because the present state of affairs is seen as temporary and penultimate. It won’t last and will eventually be replaced by a “kingdom of peace and justice and unimaginable bliss.” 

Perhaps even more damaging are those forms of  obsession with the end-times, with the coming apocalypse that take the biblical promises that God will fashion a new heaven and a new earth as a sort of notice served from on high that this current world is already marked for destruction. “This can be seen as a license to treat the world and its resources carelessly, or even in a ruthlessly exploitative manner.”[1] This attitude is one motivation behind the denial of climate change that is prevalent among some evangelical Christians; the other motivation, particularly on the part of those with a vested interest in fossil fuels, is greed. In extreme cases this attitude can be taken to the - frankly blasphemous - conclusion that we can actually hasten the coming of the end times not just be rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, but by causing the very destruction that Revelation and other apocalyptic writings describe. The whole concept is based on the false premise that God will destroy and replace the world and creation, when in fact what God promises is renewal and redemption for all of creation: the new heaven and the new earth will be fashioned out of the old. 

The opposite approach is to ignore the whole topic and to take what we might call a secular Christian approach, focusing on the here and now, and on improving our current situation. This attitude is based on the myth of progress, the idea that all natural and historical processes have an inbuilt tendency towards perfection. Put simply, things get better as time passes. Well, some things do, and some things don’t. Our ability to heal and to cure has certainly got better, unfortunately also our ability to kill one another. I still prefer this approach to the first one. Improving our lot, caring more for one another, and for the world God has given us to look after is a good thing. But without a vision, goal, or purpose beyond ourselves, it can easily become self-serving and even selfish in the definition of those who deserve care, in the way care is restricted on family, tribal, or national lines. 

What about John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation? What was his approach to eschatology, to the end times? He wrote down his vision as an encouragement for his Christian communities, the seven churches, in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It was meant to encourage them in the here and now. To give them the strength and courage and the hope to continue worshipping and acting as Christians, to carry on witnessing to the living God in their lives, to continue with their transformation, even in times of persecution. 

John’s vision of a heavenly reality, of God’s ultimate victory, is something for them to hold on to. God has won and we share in that victory. The song that the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” sings is a song of victory. God’s promise of salvation is physical, emotional, and spiritual: “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:16-17) Like a mother, God wants nothing more than to wipe every tear from our eyes. This is the same message of salvation and protection that Jesus gives in today’s gospel: “I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:30) The Revelation version is just a little more dramatic and uses more images. 

I quite like the Book of Revelation because it is so full of images: beautiful images, such as the ones we heard this morning, but also terrifying ones, and some that are just plain weird. It is not always suitable for Sunday school – so children, today we are going to make the beast with seven heads and ten horns out of papier-mâché. That is probably a challenge even for our Sunday school teachers, and they are very good. John’s visions speak to both our fears and our hopes. “The worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world, radiant with the light of God’s presence, abounding in joy and delight.”[2]

We must not get hung up on the exact descriptions of the future. What is important is the message behind the pictures: God triumphs, and with God justice, mercy and love prevail. Inspired by this vision, Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,”[3] in fact part of his memorial in Washington DC is an arced wall with all his famous quotes on it. He took this vision as a call to work on making this transformation come about, to follow if you will the trajectory that God has already set. 
No initiative or action of ours can establish God’s kingdom; God has already done that. However, as Christians are called to live today in ways that already correspond to the shape of God’s promise, to model our lives according to the values of God’s kingdom, to act sure in the knowledge that justice, mercy and love will prevail, and in doing so to fashion “living parables of God’s new creation even in the midst, and under the conditions of the old.”[4]

[1] Trevor Hart, The myth of progress, (Church Times, 18.3.2016)
[2] Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking Penguin, 2012), 175
[3] Speech of August 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
[4] Trevor Hart, The myth of progress, (Church Times, 18.3.2016)

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