Anglican Church of Canada
Proper 33 November 15, 2015
What a bloody week it has been! On Friday, we found ourselves once more horrified by reports of terrorist attacks in Paris, as attackers all over the city began murdering people relaxing on a Friday evening – in restaurants, at a concert, at a soccer game. The day before, a suicide bomber in Beirut threatened to drag Lebanon back into civil unrest. And of course we are reminded that this kind of carnage is pretty well a daily occurrence in the madness that is Syria or Iraq or Yemen today. Such an endless cycle, such a tireless lust for blood and killing, so many lives snatched away, or torn apart by the loss of a loved one. Lord have mercy.
What does all this do to us? Well, it breaks our hearts, moves us to pity for the victims. We find ourselves appalled by the callousness of the murderers, disgusted and angered by those who would intentionally do such a thing. We may experience fear, a greater sense of our own vulnerability, the feeling that no one is safe. It shakes our trust in human nature. It calls up hatred in us, and we don’t like that in ourselves. As much as anything else, it is the senselessness of violence that gets to us, that shakes our moral universe with its insane and twisted vision of the pointlessness and worthlessness of human life. The fact is, in events like these we too suffer the trauma of violence. It is not just the immediate victims in Paris or Beirut – this violence is also directed, quite intentionally, against you and me. That is precisely the point of terrorism. It is aimed not just against the handful of people unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is aimed at our society as a whole, against all of us, against our moral compass, our standards of decency, our valuing of human life. It is meant to traumatize, to cause fear, to awaken hatred and prejudice. It is intended to drag us into its own insanity.
And so it seems to me that events like this past week’s are an assault on our faith. By this I do not mean, let me hasten to add, that this is about some kind of ideological war between Islam and Christianity. That of course is what the terrorists would like us to believe, because it would give legitimacy to their insanity, making them the heros of Islam they pretend to be. Unfortunately, one hears again and again that this is about Islam being a threat – so many of us, it seems, get suckered into adopting precisely the view of the terrorists. Let it be said clearly again and again – terrorist acts like this are condemned by the vast majority of Muslims; and what is more, the vast majority of victims of terrorism are Muslim.
When I say that I believe that this is an assault on our faith, I mean something more basic than the rivalry of two world religions. I mean that some of the most basic convictions of any healthy religion – the belief in a good and merciful God, in the value of every human life as sacred, in the possibility of any kind of moral order, in the call to live in peace with one another – all of these values shared by Christianity and Islam – are under intentional attack by fanaticism and hatred.
So if these kinds of horrors are an attack on the fundamental decency of our faith, how does our faith respond? What resources do we have, in our tradition and our Scriptures, that would help us withstand this kind of attack? To put it bluntly: how can we continue to believe in the goodness of God and the value of each human life in the face of this insanity?
Well, as it happens, through that strange “coincidence” of the lectionary, there is at least the beginnings of an answer to that question in today’s gospel reading. It comes from Jesus’s rather dark and disturbing teaching about the end times. It is a passage we come back to every year about this time – and indeed, we will hear more from it in a couple of weeks time at the beginning of Advent. It is not a passage any of us is very comfortable with, I think. Take for example:
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
It seems the good news is not very good this morning. Scarcely, we might say, what we look to Scripture for: comfort and hope, for promises of the love of God and the hope of peace. And yet, there is a realism in this passage that is healthy. As Christians, we should be heartbroken and sickened by events like those in Beirut and Paris this week –but we should not be surprised. “Do not be alarmed”, Jesus tells us. He has warned us that things like this will happen. In the end, God’s kingdom of peace and justice will triumph; but in the meantime, there will be wars and atrocities and unspeakable violence. It is what history looks like in this fallen world. And again and again, for 2000 years, Christians have experienced the bitter truth of Jesus’s warnings.
These teachings of Jesus belong to a particular tradition in biblical writing, which we have come to call apocalyptic. Apocalyptic thought has to do with visions of the end time, and of human history as a kind of cosmic struggle involving great suffering, but ending with the triumph of God. We find the beginnings of apocalyptic in some of the later prophets; many of the later Jewish writings that didn’t make it into the bible are apocalyptic visions; and of course we find it most extensively in the book of Revelation. The fact that three of the four gospels report Jesus using this kind of language suggests that this is not a marginal tradition, but something that was important to him. Nevertheless, we tend to ignore it as much as possible – it is just too uncomfortable.
One reason we ignore it, of course, is that a lot of apocalyptic writing sounds just plain crazy. We don’t have to spend a lot of time in the Book of Revelation before we begin to suspect that John must have had a bad stash of drugs. The psychedelic visions of monsters and plagues and disasters are more than a bit over the top. This is not a book we can afford to take literally. Nonetheless, when we look past the lurid imagery, we may well find that it speaks quite realistically to history as we know it – witness Jesus’s words in today’s gospel.
The second reason we are uncomfortable with apocalyptic has to do with the first: the craziness in the text brings out the crazies. It seems that it is the crazies in Christianity who read and quote Revelation – generally having to do with some abstruse theory of how some details of American politics show unmistakably that we are in end times, and that Jesus will be returning on April 23rd of next year. It always amazes me, this penchant for calculating the date of the end times, particularly because Jesus says quite clearly that nobody knows, not even him. I suspect it has to do with the very human need to be in control: given how disturbingly out of control the apocalyptic view of history seems to be, what could be more natural for some than to try to work out all the clues so as to predict how it will unfold. Note that that is the disciples first question: “When will these things happen?” And Jesus answers as though he could foresee all the trouble this question would bring: ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray.” ‘Nuff said.
But there is a another reason we are uncomfortable with apocalyptic, besides the crazy images and the crazy people, and I suspect it is the most fundamental reason of all. And that is that we resist the rather pessimistic vision of human history it sketches for us. We are children of modern Western civilization, a civilization based on scientific and democratic and economic progress. We like to think – we have the luxury of thinking – that peace and prosperity are the norm, are the inevitable goal of progress in human history. And indeed, the peace and stability and prosperity we enjoy in Canada is a great accomplishment of our civilization. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that it is inevitable, or that it is the norm. the apocalyptic vision disturbs us, because it implies that violence and unrest are the general way of human history. But the very thing that we find so disturbing is a comfort to those to whom history has been less kind. Throughout all of Christian history, the apocalyptic vision has spoken to the marginalized, the victims of violence, the refugees. It has spoken of their experience of history as violent, out of control, troubled. And it has given a hope, when belief in the inevitability of human progress has been shattered, that God is still Lord of all history, and that God’s good purposes of peace and justice will be worked out in the end.
And so it is perfectly understandable that we should be uncomfortable with the apocalyptic tradition, with its pessimism about human history, with its scepticism about our ability to bring about peace and stability by the sheer force of human progress. But despite our discomfort, it is there, this particular aspect of Christian faith, these dark words of Jesus, and they continue to speak to many for whom our dream of progress and prosperity has proved to be an empty promise. And so these words, this tradition, deserves our attention. We might try to read these words in solidarity with the refugees, the traumatized, the marginalized and oppressed. And we might even feel some days – as perhaps we felt on Friday when the news from Paris trickled through – that our own faith in human progress and decency has been shaken, and that we can taste, just for a moment, the reality that the refugees and the marginalized live day by day. And then the words of the apocalyptic tradition might begin to speak to us their bleak wisdom: there will be wars, and rumours of wars; nation will rise against nation; the human propensity to violence will always keep raising its bloody head; and the forces of hatred will always be with us, and some days will seem to prevail. All this is true. And yet, nonetheless, we believe that God is the Lord of the universe, that God’s purposes of peace and justice and love will never be crushed, but will have the last word. Though we may be heartbroken and shaken by what we hear on the news, we should never be surprised. There is nothing here that Christians have not always known, have not seen again and again over 2000 years, and yet have continued to look to God in hope and quiet confidence. Amen.