The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B)
November 14, 2021
A sermon preached by The Rev’d John Miles Evans
Today’s description from the Hebrew bible by the Prophet Daniel of the war in heaven and the defeat by Archangel Michael of the fallen angels and the forecast in Mark’s gospel of the universal suffering awaiting all at the end of time are examples of what is called “Apocalyptic” literature. The word “Apocalypse” has commonly come to be associated with the end of the world, with the kind of grand and violent events one might find in science fiction. A cosmic upheaval is envisioned which would whet the appetite of any special effects technician in Hollywood!
Dramatically pictorial and full of symbolism, apocalyptic texts lend themselves to exploitation by the most creative or even the most diabolical of imaginations, be they cinemagraphic or theological! The Middle Ages loved apocalyptic imagery, especially images of hell and damnation. A giant Hell’s Mouth was a standard fixture of medieval mystery and morality plays, and the audiences took great delight in seeing malefactors pitched headlong into the gaping mouth of fiery perdition on stage.
Apocalyptic imagery tends to emerge and come to the fore in times of suffering and persecution. It is the natural resort of those who are presently tormented in this life but are confident of their vindication in the future. For some that vindication is close at hand and will come soon; for others, vindication is no less sure but it must await the next life. The function of apocalyptic imagery, paradoxically, is to give hope. However prolonged and intense the coming devastation will be, true believers will emerge from it vindicated and saved.
Apocalyptic imagery also tends to emerge in times of change and uncertainty. Like our own times. W. B. Yeats, the great Anglo-Irish poet of the early 20th century, had a keen sense that Western culture and civilization as we have known it was in the process of breaking up. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” he wrote, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer ... Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.” Yeats saw the barbarians at the gates of his world, just like the barbarians who sacked Rome centuries before. But Yeats’s apocalyptic imagery was not based upon hope but upon fear. He saw only disintegration ... the collapse of the familiar. The Christian synthesis, for him, was part and parcel of what was about to end and to die, and he awaited the unknown in the form of some “rough beast slouching towards Bethelehem to be born.” Despair not hope would be the outcome of the coming apocalypse for Yeats.
Yeats was not a Christian. For the Christian, what the bizarre and crazy imagery of apocalyptic means is that God is in charge of history. The Christian world view, like the Jewish world view on which it is superimposed, is a linear view of history. For the Christian, history has a purpose. And that purpose is none other than the working out in time of God’s will for all Creation and, in particular, for those he has created in his own image. The Greeks and Romans, like most of their ancestors, thought of time as cyclic. There was literally “nothing new under the sun.” Life moved in cycles, like nature: ever germinating, growing, being harvested, and dying, only to begin sprouting again in the next growing season. The pantheon of gods they worshipped might stir up things from time to time but they, like human beings themselves, were inextricably tied to the natural cycle which, come what may, would continue churning and churning, going nowhere, getting nowhere, but recurring dependably like clockwork.
Except, ...except, that one died. There is a define terminus ad quem to individual lives. The world might keep churning on, but time would put a definite period to the individual life. There was little
Enter the prophet Daniel and his vision of the end. The living God is the Lord of history. And we are more than just “playthings of the gods who kill us for their sport,” as Shakespeare wrote. No, there is none other who fights for us but God’s strong angel Michael who will bring deliverance to God’s people. Though himself outside history, God is directing history in fulfillment of his own purpose. Glimpses of God’s ultimate purpose for Creation and for ourselves are to be had now, but the final fulfillment of God’s purpose is beyond time and history. One day God will ring down the curtain on this world, just as the cords of our own lives on this earth will one day be cut. But death is not the final word. Not for ourselves. Not for this world which God has created and called “good.” But we shall all be changed. We, individually, and all of Creation. That is the ultimate transformation we await and for which we hope.
Setting a period to our own personal history, just as setting a period to the world’s history, cannot help but give a sense of urgency to our lives. One thing is certain, the reality of death—the reality of our end—has to make us focus with laser-like clarity on the significant choices we make in this finite life of ours ... has to make us focus, in other words, on our legacy... on what we leave behind. The other side of the coin of finalityis judgment. What these apocalypses say to us is that one day the curtain will be rung down and we and everyone else will be called to account for all these choices we have made. That is what all the apocalyptical pyrotechnics are really all about—to underscore the seriousness of the moral life to which we are called as Christians, while at the same time holding out the assurance that God will ultimately vindicate God’s people. It is God who is in charge. That is the source of our hope. And our trust is in the One who endures. For the things of this world are perishing, right now before our eyes.
Today’s Gospel follows immediately on a visit by Jesus and his disciples to the Temple. Herod’s Temple was magnificent by any standards, as those of you who have been to Jerusalem can attest. Only the stone platform (the “Temple mount”) remains today, but that is the size of 24 football fields! The foundation stones of that structure, to be seen most clearly at the Western or Wailing Wall, are immense! The disciples were dazzled by the Temple! Mark records that one of them exclaimed to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”—to which Jesus had replied with a prediction of the Temple’s imminent destruction: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” Jesus said. It was an apt preface to Jesus’ discourse in today’s Gospel which declares that not only the Temple but the whole created cosmos as we know it will pass away. The message is clear. How foolish it is to trust in the things of this world which will pass away. Kingdoms will fall. Empires (even the American Empire) will fade away. Temples, yes, and cathedrals and churches, too, will crumble into powder. The only thing which remains for ever is the Holy One, the Holy One who is not contained by time and space, nor by our ideas of him. But our trust is not in stones and mortar, our trust is not in institutions of human devising. Our trust is in the One who bears us safely in his hands. The One who endures for ever. The One who has promised to bring us safely home. Amen.
©2021 John Miles Evans