On Sunday 17th November we were very pleased to welcome Phil George as our guest preacher. He kindly gave permission for his sermon to be on our website!
Malachi 4, vv 1-2a. Luke 21, vv 5-19
‘The end is nigh’ says the evangelical board carried through the town. ‘We’re doomed’, says Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. The Apocalypse, the Final End of all things is always lurking in the wings of history – strongly appealing to zealots with no taste for our rich, diverse, yet flawed humanity. It’s a close friend to that terrible heresy which says that human beings are evil rather than fallen.
But now we live in an eon of the Earth’s story which some have called the Anthropocene. Unlike the previous geological eras, this one has not lasted or emerged over millions of years but has come about in just 150 years. This is the time when we humans have changed the natural world in massive ways. And because the planet is being radically changed and threatened by what we have done and are doing, we feel the End Time is a real danger. The Climate Change and Species Extinction Apocalypse.
This feeling, this collective anxiety, can produce psychological problems and it runs the danger either of crippling our ability to act or of producing action which is rightly driven by a sense of urgency but which can be intolerant and divisive. Those are the challenges from Extinction Rebellion to our societies and the challenges for Extinction Rebellion itself.
But whatever the arguments about right action, it’s increasingly clear that the threat to the very existence of life on Earth is real and demands action. The danger of an End Time indeed.
So, you might think that today’s readings from Malachi and the Gospel of Luke are perfect for describing where we are and what’s ahead – especially when we hear of the crisis in the natural order which is part of the Luke passage, the earthquakes and so on.
But not really. These are both passages focusing on an historic crisis, not the final crisis of history. Malachi is addressing corruption, immorality and injustice among priests and people; and he’s making his prophetic challenge in a relatively good time for the people – in the 5th century BC after the return from Babylon and the restoration of the Temple. They’ve settled into this time and lost their moral edge. It will lead to trouble.
Such historical sequences are common and I have certainly lived through one. The post-war remaking of the UK through the Welfare State and a new set of opportunities for working-class families like the one I grew up in, this was a good and hopeful time. But out of it came the consumerist isolation, the loss of community, the decline of the civic connectedness which had been so important in seeing us through hard times and into better ones.
Things, things, things. The private space instead of the public space. And the ideology of the Thatcher period ran with that tide and accelerated its effects, fragmenting society further. We’ve been living with the consequences of that ideology in the recent politics of austerity and Brexit divisions. Did we take the good times for granted, wasting all that social and moral capital? That’s the Malachi moment which speaks to us in our time.
But the Luke passage is, of course, more seminal for our faith. And Jesus precisely distinguishes the coming historic crisis when Jerusalem and the Temple would fall, from the End time. The wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrors and other portents are regular features of Jewish apocalyptic writing. Out of these would come the final great deliverance by the Messiah. And this is what the first disciples were expecting would happen soon since Jesus was the Messiah.
But Jesus warns against the false prophets who will claim that the historical crisis is the End time. The troubles and trials of the present age will happen first. The Fall of Jerusalem, the persecution of his followers, the eventual decline of the Imperial power of Rome in the later part of this chapter where the Gentile age reaches its own crisis – all this should not be confused with the end of all things, the end of history.
Luke was clearly writing his Gospel after the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and there’s no doubt that that the early Christians were in process of realising that the End time was not soon. There were enough other crises to be getting on with. So, they needed to focus on true and just and righteous living now.
Include the slave and the women at the heart of the community of faith. Include foreigners and respect their qualities and insights. Seek the good of the poor and the marginalised, the outsiders. Stay faithful in the face of opposition and persecution. All this is the Luke vision, in the Gospel and later when he writes the Acts of the Apostles.
And the Good News for those early Christians and for us is that this Jesus is alive and working in you through his Spirit. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it, to quote John’s Gospel. The Kingdom is in you and among you now. Go forward to love and work for the fulfilment of this Kingdom of justice and reconciliation in all the world.
Now, we might still be fearing that our historic crisis is precisely in danger of becoming the End time – not the one in which the Messiah comes at the end of history but one in which the earth dies and the human race with it. That’s what’s different about the Climate Change threat.
But the Gospel vision of how to pursue the Kingdom in times of historical crisis is still the key to dealing with that threat to the earth.
We lift up the poor, especially those internationally whose lives are most threatened by climate change, through drought or rising sea levels. We build community through investing in the public space and the provision of housing, health, quality early education and creative opportunities. We seek peace not conflict, justice more than private wealth – whatever system we are in, including enlightened and regulated capitalism. We favour public over private transport and we respect the earth rather than abuse it – good stewards of Creation.
It’s the vision of the prophets and of Jesus Christ. It will give the planet a chance. And we followers of this compassionate and life-affirming Lord will be his betrayers at his own table if we do not focus on these matters more than on consumer goods, right opinions and group identity. Life has to break out of the tomb of our lifeless consumption and our dead certainties.
And there’s a secular Good News to match this Gospel vision. The world is hungry for change, the poor and the rich. Some are seeking it in twisted false visions of bigotry and narrow identity – Us against Them, with us behind a wall of excluding the Other.
But many are seeking a new dawn of community, of connection, of celebrating diversity, of living to experience not to own, of creating more than buying.
It is a time where the true life of the Gospel will be welcomed even if the theology is not shared. More a new beginning than an end.
God give us the wisdom, the courage, the energy and the joy to live fully in these times.