I wonder what you make of today’s readings – at first glance we might reflect on Dads Army’s Private Fraser’s oft stated response in that ‘we’re all doooomed’ so perhaps we should go home now and wait in fear and trembling for the Apocalypse – or maybe use it as an opportunity to eat, drink and be merry etc. or do both? There are some who are thinking the end is nigh right now – and indeed we all have our own apocalyptic fears.
Wars, famines and earthquakes were the stock-in-trade of apocalyptic speculation. The Bible uses a number of them – in Daniel and Ezra and Baruch and Mark and of course Revelation to name just a few. Apocalypticism still plays a vital part within Christianity. It had a significant impact on the medieval period and has continued, particularly in the context of radical movements with hopes for an imminent change in the political order, though it is equally prevalent in today amongst that are largely apolitical. There are also some unmistakable links with mysticism, but what separates the mystic from the apocalyptic is the Christian context is the eschatological element - that which concerns us with the ‘end times’ – the salvation promised by our saviour Jesus Christ.
Today’s passage from Matthew has been described as the ‘beginning of labour pain’ and is his interpretation of the version in Mark’s Gospel as the ‘Little Apocalypse’. Both versions beg the question what is Jesus through Matthew seeking to tell us? One interpretation is that these tragedies of history were not the signs that the end was to happen immediately but that they did signal the onset of the final period of history and this is what is meant by “birth pangs” a traditional metaphor in apocalyptic thought. The world of politics and nature goes through a period of suffering before the Messiah – does that sound familiar 2000 years on given our concerns for the planet in which we live and move and have our being? For Matthew his concern was violently illustrated by the war from about 66-70 AD (CE) which led up to the Romans sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. He was looking back on this ‘apocalypse’ through the lens of ‘birth pangs’. There is also an implicit criticism of the Jewish leaders of his day who fomented and led the disastrous war against the Romans at that time, some of whom claimed to be the messianic saviour promised by God.
Consider our ‘Threads of the Revelation’ displays surrounding us here – I think it’s amongst the very best exhibitions we have had for some time – it’s not only the wonderfully skilled craftsmanship and the way each section of St. John the Divine’s Revelation is depicted, but also the scholarship that went into it too. This time of tribulation is not a time of surrender and uselessness but an opportunity for the Church’s universal mission to all nations.
An apocalypse can be seen as being fundamentally about the irreversible, perhaps seemingly helpless change – whether at the personal or universal or indeed cosmic level. Take current topics – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation or standards in public and indeed personal life – not to mention Brexit – or even Guy Fawkes plot – ‘Change is at the centre of all that concerns and can entraps us in these issues. Few of us like change – and that’s understandable when we are surrounded by 800 years of worship, architecture and landscaping. But whether we like it or not
To pick up on the current interest in the Reformation, to put it mildly, Martin Luther was not a fan of Revelation and ‘apocalypsy’ (were there to be such a word) – and in the first edition of the New Testament of the German Bible that he translated from the Greek in just 11 weeks, he outlined his reason for his relegation of it to a subordinate place within the canon of the New Testament because he felt it didn’t adequately ‘preach Christ.’
And he may have a point.
On the other hand writers like Newton, Coleridge and Blake turned to it for inspiration, as Augustine had centuries before. Apocalyptic writings pose problems for us: it is tantalizing and bewildering – all too often we see it as chaotic and confusing and irrelevant – perhaps, we might say, the product of an over fertile imagination. I was reminded of this when I saw the Terry Pratchett exhibition in the Salisbury Museum here in the Close. The problem is that such apocalyptic writing as Matthew and Mark use, conflicts with our desire for an ordered, systematic presentation that lies at the heart of our faith and theology. But the use of such images and metaphors, if one allows them to do so, jar, awaken and transform action as well as our thoughts and attitudes. To make the most of such writing as we have heard, we need not so much to be able to interpret it as to allow it to summon us to the life of prophetic witness. And that I think is what Matthew was trying to tell us because that is what he experienced with Jesus Christ in their ministry together. Jesus always had in mind the eschatological – the ‘end time’ when his ministry would be fully completed.
The awareness of an impending apocalypse gives each one of us an opportunity to reflect on our priorities and what should we be doing with the God given time available to us.
If we had to boil down Jesus’ purpose and ministry to the bare minimum I suggest we would say bring love and change. And it is this sense of change that brings us such mixed emotions. By nature we don’t like change especially as we grow older – but Jesus is the one who changes us and the world he created, in love.