Sunday, November 22, 2015

Apocalypse Now!

In 2015 I have been preaching on Luke's Gospel on Sunday evenings.  You can read those sermons on another blog - Questioning Jesus - a 21st Century reading of Luke's Gospel

This morning we had a Parade Service exploring the God who is love and our response to the troubles of the world today.

In our evening service I had arrived at the Apocalyptic teaching of Jesus in Luke 21.  As ever in preaching there were connections to be made with the world of today.

We read from Daniel 7 and from Revelation 5 and then turned to Luke 21.  Some see this apocalyptic writing as a prediction of the end times.  I believe something very different is going on in this writing ... and that what Jesus does in his teaching in Luke 21 should be the inspiration for the response we make to what's going on in today's world, not least with the threat of terrorism at the hands of ISIS.

Reading Luke's Gospel as a Book

Books are in again!  There was a moment three or four years ago when the Kindle seemed to have won the day and sales of books plummeted.  And then the novelty wore off and this last year sales of books have soared.  There’s something about reading a book, having it in your hand, you know how much you’ve read, how much there is to go – it has a feel to it, even a smell.  It’s not quite the same to read at the bottom of your electronic screen that you’re up to 60% of the book.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Edna Price at the moment – not at all well in hospital, and member of Highbury’s book clubs for fifty years and more!  It was great seeing Heather’s little pile in the office of the minutes of the book club stretching back to the 1960’s.

Jesus the Prophet

You need to get the feel of Luke’s gospel as a book.  We’re nearly at the end!  Chapter 21 and there are three chapters to go … and we all know what’s in store.  Of the twenty chapters we have read so far, ten of them – that’s nearly half the whole book have been devoted to Jesus’s fateful journey to Jerusalem.

And it was fateful.

There was a moment half way through the journey when a group of sympathetic Pharisees – yes, sympathetic Pharisees: they weren’t all hostile! – came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

But Jesus was resolute.  He was not going to be put off.  He knew he had to go to Jerusalem, and thre was nowhere else for him to go.

“Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”

Pretty powerful stuff.  He is pretty scathing about Herod.  Dangerous thing to say when you think what Herod had done to John the Baptist – he had beheaded him.

One thing Jesus said there is really significant.  You have to really understand it in order to appreciate what Jesus does when he gets to Jerusalem.

Jesus describes himself as ‘a prophet’.

But what is a prophet?

The Prophet's Task - a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

One fascinating thing to do in the Old Testament is to weave the story of the Prophets whose books make up the last third of the Old Testament with the books that tell the story of the kingdom of Israel and after their division, the kingdoms of the North and the South.  The books of Samuel and Kings.

The prophets are the ones who challenge the powers that be, who challenge the king – that’s why their task is so important in Jerusalem – for that’s where power lay.

Prophets speak about the past, the present and the future.  But the future they speak of is not just based on random or even on God inspired predictions.  They sense God’s inspiration in their hearts as they offer a critique of what’s happened in the past, an analysis of what’s happening in the present, putting their finger on what is going wrong under the rule of the the current king, and a forecast of what’s in store:  if things carry on as they are then is is what’s going to happen.  Change your ways and then things will work out differently in this way.

Modern Prophets are the Think tanks who offer a critiqe of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

The equivalent of the Kings, the powers that be today are the politicians, the government.  The equivalent of the prophets are the campaigning think tanks.  They are the ones who offer a critique of the past, an analysis of the present.  They point out the consequences of following current policies and suggest ways to change that will lead to a better future.   Keep on doing things this way and this will happen.  Change your ways and that will happen.

Jesus the Prophet offers a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

 What happens when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem is exactly what you might expect remembering what he wanted those Pharisees to go and tell that fox, Herod!

Rounding the corner and seeing the city he wept over it, saying “If you even you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

What incensed him more than anything else was what Herod and his successors had done with the temple – the once simple yet imposing house of prayer had been demolished and re-built as an opulent, extravagant building Herod the Great had hoped would become one of the wonders of the world – in that monstrous project they had succeeded only in turning what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

And a lot of the problem had to do with money.  The waste of money in building the temple project could only be acquired by massive imposition on ordinary people – that’s why Jesus dealt so harshly with the money changers in the temple.

As day by day he returns to the Temple the authorities tried to catch him out with their hostile questioning.  They watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus' Critique of the Past and Analysis of the Present

It was the ruling class – the people in charge in Jerusalem, those in power, that Jesus was most scathing of.  But it’s easy to miss how scathing Jesus was.  His anger was in his tone of voice.  And you don’t always spot that on the page of a book.

It was wonderful celebrating Jocelyn’s 100th birthday- I was recalling that occasion when Jocelyn and Christabel first came to church and my embarrassment.  I had only just plagiarised a book Christabel had written.  I had written for permission, the reply came back not known at this address, and so I copied some exercises from her book on public speaking into some notes I was putting together to train preachers in the use of their voice.

The exercise I remember invited you to say a single sentence in ten different ways – using your voice to indicate how you might say it.

Christabel graciously gave me a newer edition of her book, ‘Sounding out your voice and speech.”  One exercise I seem to remember involved saying the same sentence in 10 different ways – in a kindly way, in an angry way, in a sarcastic way, in a helpful way, in a sceptical way.

The words remain the same – the meaning changes because of the way the words are spoken.

Take the first four verses of Luke 21.  It’s the loveliest of stories because we are so used to it being read in the loveliest of ways.

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, in the loveliest tone of voice that shows just how much he comens the wonderful generosity of that poor widow.  ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.

Elsie Chamberlain, first woman chaplain to the forces, broadcaster who pioneered live worship broadcasts on the radio and one-time President of the Congregational Federation, used to loathe the hymn – because congregations would sing it lustily and not mean it …

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold!  Don’t you believe it, Elsie would say!

I still like the hymn – but Elsie has made me really think about that verse.  And about that widow.

Go back three verses and start the passage there. Use the same words but speak them in a very different tone of voice

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, in an angry tone of voice outraged at the burden imposed on this woman that while the wealthy can give apparently generous gifts without it impacting on their the way they lived their lives, she is expected to give everything she’s got even though it means she ends up destitute.:  ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’  How disgraceful!

There is a growing tension as Luke 20 ends and Luke 21 begins.  Jesus is offering a critique of what’s gone wrong in the past, an analysis of what’s going wrong in the present, and he forecasts that if the powers that be carry on  in that way it will lead inexorably to devastating destruction.

Jesus' forecast for the future for his generation

Jesus looks at what’s going on.  He sees that it is arousing the kind of discontent that will lead people to take up arms against the Romans.  Some of those hotheads, the zealots, are among his closest disciples.  They really are sons of thunder.  But he can see that when that happens the Roman power will obliterate the temple, in spite of how splendid it seems and destroy the city in spite of how impregnable it appears.

It’s as if the seeds of its downfall are contained within what is happening now.

 They key to understanding what Jesus goes on to say is in verse 32 Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

To get his point across he couches his language in the vivid end-of-the world language that was characteristic of apocalyptic writing.  But it is essentially an analysis of what’s going wrong now and a forecast of what the consequences will be for that generation if they carry on that way.

Jesus' call to us to have a prophetic voice today that offers a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

I believe these verses speak very powerfully to us today – in the horrors that are going on in the world, in things like climate change.  But I do not believe that’s because we as Christians should be looking to the end of the world at the moment.  But rather we should be having a prophetic voice, as Jesus had a prophetic voice, we should provide a critique of what has happened, an analysis of what is happening and then propose ways forward that will be in accordance with God’s way of doing things and lead.  On the sharing or the world’s resources, on climate change, on society.  And on the response to make to ISIS.  There are different points of view – feed into that thinking.  Where do you stand and tell our MP Alex Chalk where you stand.

ISIS - a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a proposal for the future

The critique of the past I would share is that the bombing wars in response to the terrorism of 9/11 have not made the world more secure but have created the current situation.  My analysis of the present is that to engage in bombing wars again will make things even worse and lead to more atrocities.  My proposal as an alternative is to spend the money you would spend on bombing on increased domestic security in policing and intelligence, on strengthening the cohesion of society and with determination working together as a community without succumbing to fear.

Those are my views.  We each of us here will have our own views.  To be true to the spirit of Jesus in Luke 21 I believe we should exercise our prophetic voice and make our views known to the powers that be – contact Alex Chalk or whoever your MP is.

How will it all end?  All will be well, all  manner of things will be well

But there’s more.  With the critique of the past, the analysis of the present and the forecast for the future Jesus gives comes also some very significant input into the way people should think in the middle of troubled times.  We must take heart, take courage, keep watch, and the bottom line of his thoughts is that we can be assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus for in answer to that sometimes frightening question, - how’s it all going to end? -  we can have that assurance that ultimately in God’s time, in God’s way all will be well, all manner of things will be well.

The critique of the past and the analysis of the present has already started – there’s a little bit more of that and then we come to the forecast for the future.

Luke 21 - Jesus' Apocalypse for his generation and his call for our generation

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

The awful thing was that the powers that be did not listen.  The armed wing of Jewish resistance actually won the argument and thirty five years later succeeded in ousting the Romans from Jerusalem.  Only to find the Roman legions coming down with untold power to destroy the temple and the city in AD 70.

But that’s to anticipate!  In the early 30’s Jesus’s listeners could scarcely believe what he said,

 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 

And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

And now as verse 32 shows he uses end-of-the world language to speak about what’s going to happen in that generation – in the next 40 years.

 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’

Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Can you see the encouragement Jesus gives.  Take heart, be not afraid, in the words of Julian of Norwich all will be well, all manner of things will be well.

But continue in the way you are going  and what is going to happen will happen.

 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

The grounds for the confidence that all will be well lie with Jesus himself.  There is a sense that he looks to the ultimate glory that will be his.  But when he draws on some farily recent apocalyptic writing in the Book of Daniel he speaks of himself as the Son of Man who comes to God – and speaks of the death and the resurr4ection and then the ascension to be at the right hand of God that is to come very shortly and will give assurance of the ultimate victory and the glory that is to be.

 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

These words are the grounds for the courage they are to find within days in the death and resurrection of Christ, within weeks in his final parting from them as he goes to be with God in heaven.  What’s a good way of getting his point home – in a story.

 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

It’s in this generation, says Jesus.

But these words give hope to us in our gneration.  The grounds of our hope are in Jesus Christ himself.  His words are assured.  His promises firm. They will not pass away.  So what are we to do?

Keep watch.  Keep on living in the way Jesus maps out.  Keep firm in the faith.  Stand firm.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Those words his followers were to take to heart – though they could only do that as they drew on the strength of the Holy  Spirit poured on them on the day of Pentecost.

This is the encouragement we need to take.  Keep firm.  Hold fast.  Follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  The real lesson of this powerful speech is that we need to be prepared to offer an analysis – the church should be in the business of being a think tank to challenge the powers that be.  That’s what Middle Esat Concern is doing, it’s what Open Doors does, it’s what Embrace the Middle East does, it’s what Christian Aid does, it’s what Ekklesia.

Keep the faith, stand firm.  Be critical, be analytical – let’s make sure that prophetic voice Jesus had is heard in today’s world with today’s issues.  For people do listen.

 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple

So in the middle of the troubles of this time let’s seek out the presence of God in Christ, listen to his Word and live our lives by it.

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