March 21, 2021

Apocalypse Now

Passage: Jeremiah 31:31–34, Hebrews 5:5–10, John 12:20–33

In 1979 I started Knox College to do a Masters of Divinity and start my path into ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Moving to Toronto was quite a change from where I previously lived. Hampton was a village when I was a boy. Probably around 3000 people when I went to Knox College in 1979.
I did my undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University which had about 2,000 students in the town of Sackville New Brunswick which was maybe twice the size of Hampton, probably in the neighborhood of 7,000 people, including students, when I attended in the mid seventies.

So, Toronto was huge. People were everywhere. And probably for the first time I lived in a place with racial diversity.
I remember going to see the Blue Jays, taking the bus from Knox College and paying the princely sum of $2 to see a double header, sitting in the outfield.
Shortly after arriving at Knox there was a night of initiation for students in the residence. At that time the residence was only for males.
I skipped the initiation night, because I hated initiations and the idea of being humiliated by others who had power.
So, instead of initiation I went to the movies and watched the movie Apocalypse Now. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola it was at the University Theatre, I think and I watched it in Technicolour and Dolby Stereo sound.

It was a movie set in the time of the Vietnam war, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
Although I did not understand it at the time, this movie which was an attack on the senses, and full of interesting cinematography and sound effects really was an anti-war movie, detailing the psychological effects of war and how soldiers in war are physically and mentally harmed and traumatized. The plot was about a soldier looking for a rogue American Colonel, Colonel Kurtz, who has gone insane. His secret mission is to kill the Colonel. And as he and his crew navigate up the river towards Kurt’s camp, they are descending into the heart of darkness in more ways than one.
Coppola’s brilliance, I suppose that he uses, sound, visual effects, lighting, angles, zooming in and out, film editing as well as the plot to try to convey that war is the heart of darkness. That war is the apocalypse and it happened to ordinary people from American who went to Vietnam.

One scene still sticks in my mind. There is a morning raid on a Vietnamese village with helicopters whirring very loudly and these helicopters are blaring from big speakers, one of my favourite classical pieces, Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries at 100 decibels plus, as they go into war and napalm is dropped and you see huge flames, and it is horrifying and fascinating all at the same time.

The apocalypse. Maybe you think that is what the apocalypse will be like. Big balls of flames destroying and killing, loud sound effects, terrifying violence, and people dying by the scores.
That is what a lot of people think the apocalypse is about. In fact, there is a whole genre of literature called post-apocalyptic and the idea is that the apocalypse has happened and it is some kind of nuclear war, or a biological weapon gone wrong, or a plague has happened, and in these writings usually most of the world has died and only a few people are left and most of the world’s infrastructure is gone and people are scrambling for survival.

The apocalypse is usual some imagined horror visited on the earth.

Strangely enough the writings in the bible called apocalyptic writings are not actually messages of doom and gloom. They were not really predictions of the end of the world, with end of world scenarios of violence and destruction, even though the book of Revelation has its moments.
They were primarily writings of hope to people going through a tough time.
They were not writings trying to scare the bejeezus out of children to make sure that they would be good-girls and boys, or scare the bejeezus out of adults to make sure they would believe in God.
No, apocalyptic writing in the bible had a very important message. That God had not forgotten his children, and they were more important powers than the dominant powers that were threatening the earth. Yes, there are beastly empires and antichrist dictators, and principalities and powers of darkness. But one day they will be gone, and love will still be here, and God will still be here.

So welcome to the apocalypse. Grab your cup of coffee or tea, and settle down in your chair, and put your seat belt on, for it is quite a ride.
But for us it is a ride of hope.

Many years ago, the people of Israel went through an apocalypse the like of the Holocaust. Actually, Israel had split into two kingdoms and the Northern Kingdom was called Israel consisting of ten of the tribes. That Northern Kingdom was destroyed and wiped out around 721 BCE and so many Jews were killed and so many taken into slavery, that the ten tribes were so scattered and decimated, that in essence those tribes were lost.

Judah was the southern Kingdom and Jerusalem was its capital. Jeremiah the prophet was contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem circa 586 BC. Many Jews were killed. Most of the city was taken into captivity and they absolutely destroyed the city pulling all the buildings down to rubble including the palace of Solomon and the temple.
There was hardly anything left.
There are conflicting reports but it seems that Jerusalem’s elite were taken as slaves to Babylon, maybe in the order of twenty-thousand. It is hard to know of how many were killed, and how many just left, of the fifty thousand others, but it is likely that many were killed.

It is in this context that Jeremiah gives hope.
The Lord says, “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant. 33 The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 None of them will have to teach a neighbor to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the Lord, have spoken.”

This new covenant that Jeremiah talks about is not based in the temple. It is not based in animal sacrifice. It is not based on the ten commandments.
It is about a relationship with God so intimate that you won’t even have to teach a neighbour to know the Lord, because everyone will know God.
Everyone will know God. That is some promise in the midst of an apocalypse.

I believe we are in the middle of another apocalypse. Maybe not as bad as world war I and World War 2 and not as bad as the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide.

But we are threatened. Many people have died. There has been a lot of grief.
And there has been a lot of loss.

We don’t have Nebuchadnezzar parked outside the city threatening us with destruction, while we all hunker down and starve, to the point of consuming one another.

No, we have Covid 19 outside and inside the city, and we have had restrictions the like of which hardly any of us have seen before. It had hurt the economy. It has meant huge losses of job. There have been people staying home, and people laid off, and people without income, and businesses going under, and a lot of emotional stress…
And then there is the matter of those who have been sick and died. Especially older people. The tragedy that has been exposed in this pandemic is, that in many ways the nation has failed elderly people in nursing homes and care facilities. I can’t even get in to the whole host of difficulties that have happened in these facilities.

And the pandemic has been very difficult on church life. We haven’t been able to gather to worship like we have for thousands of years. We haven’t been doing in person potluck suppers and bible studies and choir practices and Church School.
We have gone virtual.

So welcome to the apocalypse.

But I want to set this pandemic in a larger context of what the wider church has experienced over a number of years. The church has experienced decline.
Maybe the church is facing a pandemic apocalypse within a larger apocalypse of church decline.
This church decline has been hastened in the twenty-first century by a number of factors.
Scandals in churches around sexual misconduct. Since the terrorist attack on the world trade centre of September 11, 2001, there has been an identification of religion with violence. And the third factor is the wars and conflicts within churches over a number of issues not least of which is the full acceptance of gays and lesbians into the church.
There has also been a MeToo movement which talked about powerful men abusing women.
There has also been a Black Lives Matter movement which talks about systemic racism.
And increasingly the world’s wealth is being shifted into the hands of the very rich and life is not getting better for the poor.

And all of this had caused church attendance to spiral downward.

I think the church is in an apocalypse, but it is not all bad. We are still in for a bumpy ride and we don’t know where it is all going to end but it is not all bad.

Why? Because the meaning of apocalypse is actually this: Unveiling.
You peel back the layers and see the real thing.
And you could argue how long this unveiling has been going on and I think it probably started fifty years ago and has accelerated in the twenty-first century…

But what is being unveiled is the misuse of power. Powerful people and institutions subjected people who were not white.
Powerful men and men in general, subjugated women.
Powerful rich people subjugated the poor.
Powerful people have made money running care facilities and the elderly have suffered.
Powerful people make millions off the industrial-military complex, and it is such a huge force in the world. War and violence make money for the rich and powerful. Why would they want to stop war? As long as it isn’t in their country, their backyard.

And here is the other thing that is being unveiled, that behind much of the abuses of power is bad theology or heresy.
I quote from the Rev Nadia Bolz-Weber:
The heresy is this: With all the trappings of Christianity behind us, those who seek to justify or maintain dominance over another group of people have historically used the Bible to prove that that domination was not actually an abuse of power at the expense of others, but indeed was part of “God’s plan.” And there you have the appearance of Christianity (Bible verses and God-talk) contradicting its essence (love God, and love your neighbor as yourself).
The venom of domination runs deeply in us... And it does so because the fangs that delivered it were given not the devil’s name, but God’s. When the subordination of women is established as God’s will, when slavery is established as God’s will, when discrimination against queer folks is established as God’s will, when the CEO of the National Rifle Association claims that the right to buy a semiautomatic assault rifle is “not bestowed by man, but granted by God,” it delivers a poison that can infect the deepest parts of us. Because messages that are transmitted to us in God’s name embed far beneath the surface, all the way down to our original place, our createdness, our source code.”

I know this to be a fact, because no matter how much I love to think of myself as “Woke….”
…I grew up in a racist society, in a church and a society that abused gays, who didn’t give equality to women, that excluded people who didn’t fit in, in a country that dominated and decimated aboriginals, in world that abused and dominated women, the poor and people of colour.
And I was part of the system, and it was embedded in me and it has taken years for me to change, and I still struggle with all of it, with years of imbedded prejudice, racism, white supremacy and cultural superiority.
I literally have cried when I think of some of the things I thought and believed and said and did.
I still have a ways to go…

But it is the apocalypse that unveils that to me. The apocalypse opens our eyes, it unsettles us, it causes us to question, it challenges our assumptions, it threatens to undo us, because we need to be undone.

And yet, even though the bible has been weaponized at times to prop up the powerful and to create and empower the dominant, my hope is the gospel.

My hope is that there is a new time coming in the church which is based on the spirit, which is based on a relationship with God, which is based on love.
I believe a time is coming where God is going to have a relationship with you so intimately that you won’t need a teacher to tell you how to believe in God. You won’t need a preacher to tell you God’s word. You won’t need a priest to forgive you of your sins, or to offer sacrifices on your behalf.
Because you will know God. You will know God’s love. You will know how to love and what it is to love your neighbour. You will know because God will be in your heart.
Today our gospel lesson has some Greeks who want to see Jesus.
We are not sure why. They are Gentiles. They are not Jews. They don’t share the same faith, but they want to see Jesus.
Is it because of Jesus’ miracles?
Is it because of Jesus’ parables and teaching?
Is it because Jesus stands up to authorities?
Is it because of Jesus truth or authority?
Is it because Jesus obviously comes from God and is connected to God?
Or is it even because they want to argue with Jesus?

I think in the midst of the pandemic or an apocalypse we know the feeling of wanting to see Jesus, of wanting to know Jesus, or wanting to hear from Jesus, or wanting to receive from Jesus.

Sometime we just want Jesus to fix things.
Sometimes we want to be comforted.
Sometimes we want Jesus to explain things
And sometimes we would like to give Jesus a piece of our minds.

We all have a vision of Jesus that we would like to see.
The Peacemaker, the Miracle Worker, the Teacher, The Friend, The Healer, The Shepherd, the Forgiver…

But it is interesting the response of Jesus after the request of the Greeks, these foreigners, these people of a different faith…
And that is… Jesus launches into a whole monologue about his death. He talks about himself as a grain of wheat that has to die in order to bear fruit. He talks about the manner of his death. And there is talk of glory. For this reason Jesus came to die and that is glorious.

People want to see Jesus. We want to see Jesus and while all the other images of Jesus are important, teacher, miracle worker, peacemaker, shepherd etc…
I think Jesus wants to make sure that all these images are viewed through the prism of the cross.
…that you don’t understand Jesus till you understand the cross, that on the cross he proved that you can kill him, but he will still love you.
That on the cross you have the lamb who takes away the sins of the world, because Jesus will absorb sin and evil and violence but he never gives it back to anyone.

One of the most significant unveilings we can have is in this apocalypse is to have the real Jesus unveiled before our eyes. The Jesus who would go to the cross and die for you, and take upon himself the sin and evil of the world and only give back love, grace and liberation.

Welcome to the apocalypse. Be ready to have your mind blown as your eyes are opened. Strap in. Get ready for a bumpy ride because it is a little unsettling. It is Apocalypse Now. Amen