Anglican Church of Canada
November 17, 2019 Proper 33
Isaiah 65:17-25 Luke 21:5-19
What a contrast our two readings this morning! Weird and wonderful, intense, but with such a contrast in tone. But both are forms of that kind of Biblical writing we call apocalyptic.
Apocalyptic is the genre of Biblical writing that speaks of the end times. Apocalyptic texts read a bit like the prophets on steroids – or perhaps something a little stronger! – when the prophets’ accounts of where society is heading morph into visions of the final catastrophe and God’s final salvation. The book of Revelation is the most extensive example.
Now we tend to hear a lot of apocalyptic texts at this time of year: in the Kingdom season, as we move towards Reign of Christ Sunday at the end of the church year, and then again in Advent. And frankly, we don’t always know what to make of these weird visions, and particularly these accounts of horrid catastrophes.
Today we get two apocalptic texts, but so very different in tone and feel. We might think of them as two pictures, two contrasting paintings hanging side by side at an exhibition.
Thinking of them as paintings works, because apocalyptic is a visual kind of literature. It trades in visions. And these visions are not subtle; they read like vivid dreams, even nightmares. Apocalyptic paints in strong, even lurid colours. There are no subtle shadings here, no gray tones – but extreme, in your face colours.
One might say there is something almost childlike about how Biblical apocalyptic sees the world in absolutes and certainties. That is not in any way to disqualify it. There is a place for that kind of vision, alongside other, more nuanced ways of speaking: as Greta Thunberg is showing us, an apocalyptic vision is not less true for being seen through a child’s eyes.
On the one hand, we have Isaiah’s vision of a new heavens and a new earth. A place without weeping, or illness, or premature death; a place without violence and robbery, where everyone can grow old under the vines they plant and tend; a place where wolf and lamb shall peacefully graze together. It may be easy to visualize this as a picture – in fact our imagination may be shaped by the iconic Peaceable Kingdom paintings of the early American painter Edward Hicks.
In contrast, Jesus paints for us this morning a dark and turbulent picture of violence and persecution and destruction, a nightmare of a society falling apart. It is, unfortunately, not that unreal a picture. It is a picture of what the innocent suffer again and again in times of collapse.
And so they stand, side by side in our liturgy. How do they fit together?
Well, of course we could say they fit easily together in terms of the Biblical narrative: first there comes the trials and the struggles and the destruction, and then, when Jesus returns, creation will be made anew, and endless peace will come. That is the happy end of world history, that’s how our story unfolds.
We confess this as our truth: that God is still at work in human history, however much we continue to mess things up, and God will bring the story of the cosmos to its promised consummation. This is true.
I heard an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber the other day – the Lutheran pastor, writer, and internet celebrity known for her tough-minded integrity in the way she speaks about the faith. In that interview she made a distinction that I found very helpful: the distinction between saying things that are true, and saying things that are honest.
Our faith confesses all kinds of things that are true: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, the coming kingdom of the Christ. These belong to the core of our story, and so they are simply true for us as Christians. They are the axioms of the faith, if you will.
But – and here is the important distinction – just because they are true, does not mean it is always honest for us to say them.
For example, to say at the funeral for someone who has died far too young, “she is with God now” is undoubtably true; but it is probably not honest, because it is a way of being in denial about the grief and desolation in the room.
In the same way, I suggest, just to say that the horror and chaos and hopelessness of Jesus’s apocalyptic vision in Luke will give way to the everylasting peace of God’s kingdom is indubitably true, but it is not honest.
It is not honest in the same way that empty comfort at a funeral in not honest, because it is in denial about where we find ourselves.
I t hink, increasingly, we are recognizing our own times in apocalyptic literature. As much as progressive modernism over the past 200 years had written these texts off as primitive and naive superstition, people have looked to them time and time again in times of crisis, because they have found there words and images robust enough to speak to lurid and unsettled times.
We find ourselves in apocalyptic times, times of fear and foreboding about the future, times of the decay of social norms and institutions, times of environmental collapse.
And so, while we cling to the promise of God’s kingdom, the holy mountain where they will not hurt or destroy, with all of our hope, while we maintain its truth in the face of all that seems to deny it . . . at the same time Jesus’s account of wars and terrors and stars falling from the sky also rings true for us, because it names some of our deepest fears and forebodings.
Αnd we can’t just make these fears disappear by trotting out out the happy end of the story. And we certainly can’t use that as an excuse ot do nothing about the world’s problems. That is just not honest. It’s not honest, because it is just denial about the chaos and fear we live with.
So we are left with both visions, standing alongside each other, and we are called to endure the tension between them, to live with both and let them both shape our imagination and our moral response.
Apocalyptic speaks of these things as future events, as things that will happen. But they are not just future events, because at the same time, these visions speak to our present reality. They reveal the hidden dimensions of the world we live in today, the moral shape of our present age which we paper over by the lies we tell about ourselves about living in the best of all possible worlds.
The word “apocalyptic” in its root meaning means “uncovering” or unmasking. These are visions that tear the mask away from our present day and force us to look in the mirror.
The book of Revelation, for example, looked beneath the glittering image of Rome’s success and wealth and power, and revealed the face of Babylon, the lurid whore drunk on the blood of the innocent. The image is admittedly not subtle (apocalyptic doesn’t do subtle), and it may not be politically correct, but it is not untruthful, for all that.
When I think of some of the less savoury political figures that our democracies have thrown up in recent years (and there’s more than one of them), the sneering, leering buffoons that seem to have the edge on serious, responsible politicians of both the left and right, well, it seems to me that they too are an apocalyptic moment. They are a revelation, an unmasking, a stripping away of the mask of respectability in our society and a revelation of what is really in our hearts.
It was St. Augustine who taught us most clearly this truth: what really matters about us as people is not what we think, the theories we have about the world. Nor even what we do, because we’re going to get things wrong a lot of the time. What matters most, what tells us who we really are, is what is in our hearts, what we love.
The choices we make in this apocalyptic age – our political choices, our consumer habits, our social preferences – tear the mask we like to show the world away, and show what is really in our hearts. And that, frankly, looking at what is popular in the world today, is terrifying.
But there is another face that apocalyptic shows us: the promise of the new heaven and the new earth that Isaiah speaks of, a promise restated in countless ways throughout scripture. This too is an unmasking, a revelation οf what is in our hearts. These longings – longings for peace, and harmony, for human flourishing – also lie deep within us. But they get buried by the cares of the world, by the cynicism that life teaches us, by the process of getting used to this broken and twisted age that we call growing up.
When we hear these passages of Scripture – and we will hear more of them as we move into Advent – they peel away these dusty, hardened layers from our hearts, and reveal again the fresh, warm, human hope that lies buried within each one of us. They reveal to us our deepest desires, remind us of our deepest hopes. They remind us of a profound truth about ourselves, and in so doing, begin to make that truth real in our world.
I want to conclude by taking you back to those old pictures of the Peaceable Kingdom, the lion and the lamb and the wolf and the calf lying serenely next to one another before the backdrop of a quaint New England farm bathes in the golden mellow light of autumn. These pictures were painted by a Quaker sign-painter and pastor by the name of Edward Hicks. He painted this scene obsessively throughout the latter part of his life: there are at least 62 extant versions of Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, each one a little different, each one witnessing to that same vision and hope that burned in his Quaker heart.
But there is an interesting observation people have made about these pictures. If you could see them all, hanging in a gallery in the order he painted them in, one notices a subtle change. The older he got, it is said, the more ferocious the faces of the predators, the lions and wolves and bears, in these pictures became. Now what is that about?
One can only suspect that the older he got, the more aware he became of the evil that lurks in the hearts of humankind; and the more aware he became of the tension between this Biblical vision and the reality he saw unmasked around him.
And yet, he clung to the vision. He returned again and again to painting this scene, to enduring the tension that was growing within him and finding expression on his canvases. He endured this tension, and kept on painting this scene of hope, because his calling, especially in the face of all inhumanity and cruelty, was to keep on proclaiming God’s promise, that this too is true.
And that is not only true, but also profoundly honest.