Preparing for the Apocalypse

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Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost — Remembrance Sunday, Year C — 13 November 2022
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

+In the Name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the return of announcements on ABC Radio preparing us for bushfire season: make your safety plan, we’re told, keep a battery powered radio handy tuned to your local ABC station, and stay alert! Today’s readings on this second-last Sunday of the Church’s year also issue warnings, but what are we to look out for, and how are we to prepare?

The prophet Malachi today, bringing the Old Testament to a close, promises an apocalypse, and he uses scorched earth imagery. A lot of fundamentalist Christians take this literally—that God’s coming for us or, more accurately, for the ungodly. So it’s comforting that elsewhere in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 98 which we read earlier, God’s judgement is imagined quite differently. God’s loving purposes are revealed at last for all to see, and the whole earth rejoices, with our music joining a chorus of seas and rivers, celebrating God’s good news for the world God loves. Psalm 98 has an Easter feel to it, of joy bursting out to overcome evil and despair, with good news for all of creation. As the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it, the last day will the universal Easter of the cosmos. And as the great Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann put it, God’s judgement won’t be the Dies irae of the Church’s old requiem mass, a day of wrath, but rather, it will be a Dies pacificae, a day of peace and rejoicing for God’s whole beloved creation:

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it:
the good earth and those who live upon it.
Let the rivers clap their hands:
and let the mountains ring out together before the Lord;
For he comes to judge the earth:
he shall judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth (Psalm 98: 8-9).

Now, what about Jesus in today’s gospel? When he declares the coming destruction of the temple, and wars, with plagues and famines, he’s not looking into some crystal ball. The events referred to centre on Roman occupation forces destroying the Jerusalem temple in AD70, written back in Luke’s gospel as a prediction made by Jesus himself. But there’s more than local history at stake. Jesus is declaring that a whole violent and complicit system is going to tear itself apart, because this is the way history goes. The apocalypse is ours to bring on, not God’s.

Jesus also mentions plagues and famines, with a great writhing in the natural word, all using imagery from the ancient apocalyptic literature playbook. But those of us facing today’s challenges may find such imagery strikingly familiar. Today the nuclear threat is back, thanks to a frustrated empire builder and status seeker whose evil folly is as old as human nature. Indeed, Europe’s first major war for 75 years is a good reminder on this Remembrance Sunday of why the firm hand of military force, and the courage of those prepared to wield it at the cost of their lives, remains as necessary as it ever was this side of heaven—as our least worst option in a world that regularly faces much worse options.

Jesus’ warning of portents in the skies and convulsions in nature can’t help but remind today’s hearers of climate change. Not that Jesus predicted that way back then, but he certainly did see the connection between self-destructive human folly and its natural consequences—the poetic license of apocalyptic literature that he uses in today’s gospel is uncannily like the bleak future of worsening climate crisis that our scientists are predicting, with portents, plagues, famines, the lot. And it’s no surprise that the military are taking this seriously—more seriously sometimes than their political masters. The Pentagon has been preparing for a threatening future including significant sea-level rise, while US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has named climate change as a greater existential threat than Chinese aggression.

So, if that’s what we need to look out for, how are we to prepare for it? The second letter to the Thessalonians today gives us some sobering but potentially very relevant guidance. It comes from very early in the Christian story, when Jesus’ second coming was still expected any time—before the Church realised it had to settle down for the long haul of history. St Paul is responding to an unhelpful attitude that had emerged in the Thessalonian Church, where Christians had given up their livelihoods and were sitting around, gossiping, waiting for the end—a bit like a modern doomsday cult, though probably more cheerful. Paul rebukes them for this lassitude, sending them back to their livelihoods and their responsibility to care for one another. Paul is telling them, and he’s telling us too, that doing nothing isn’t in our Christian DNA, that stepping up and being responsible and caring for each other are what the followers of Jesus do. Jesus wasn’t an escapist, he wasn’t away with the fairies, and neither should we be.

And then listen to Jesus’ teaching about preparedness in today’s Gospel. He’s warning Christians that in the face of apocalyptic conditions, the truth will go out the window, and violent people will believe any nonsense, so that those who identify with Jesus and stand up for his vision of love and grace will be the least welcome, the least popular—and certainly the least populist. Friends, I can imagine a scenario in which infrastructure and food security begin to collapse, in which massive climate migration overwhelms borders, and in which economies falter, so that violence against others perceived as threats becomes the order of the day. If we see signs of this violent reaction already on the far right in America and Europe, think how much worse it could get.

And suddenly Jesus’ call to Christians in today’s gospel, to prepare to stand our ground in the cause of love and justice, makes perfect sense. Perhaps in a world like that, which may descend on us apocalyptically within decades, the Church will find its vocation and its faith and its voice and its nerve once again, beyond the half-converted listlessness that bedevils it throughout today’s West.

Friends, our way into this vision, and this preparedness, is revealed in the Eucharist, which is the apocalypse of our pretensions, and our reenlistment week by week in Jesus’ cause. It re-establishes us as Easter people, with the faith, the smarts, and the courage to be ready whenever the challenge comes—and whatever that challenge.

The Lord be with you . . .

St Philip's Anglican Church,
cnr Moorhouse and Macpherson Streets, O'Connor, ACT 2602.