Remembering and Forgetting

A sermon preached on 14 November 2021

We live in precedented times.

Oh yes, I know what everyone has been saying for the best part of the last two years. They’ve been saying that we live in unprecedented times.

Times we could never have imagined.

Times we could never have foreseen.

Times that were different to every time before them.

Yes, said, every newspaper and media outlet. These are unprecedented times.

But we only think that these times are unprecedented because in order to cope and survive, our species has developed ways of forgetting things alongside ways of remembering them.

I think I may already have spoken from the pulpit about the dinner that I had just before lockdown when someone connected to the debate about how to address the climate crisis said to me, “We’ve just got to turn to the apocalyptic passages in the bible – it is the apocalypse that makes most sense now”.

The gospel reading today has more than a whiff of the apocalypse about it.

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 birthpangs.

It is easy to get carried away with this kind of thing. Easy to see that it predicts our own panic, our own fears, our own sense of desperation.

In my wanderings through different religious experiences before I found the practice of faith that I now have, I met the apocalyptic in several places. And prophets too sometimes – prophets of doom who could see the signs of the end times all around. And thought that bad things happened to remind people to turn to God because God is cross.

And some of them would take it far too far, trying to use all kinds on nonsense to predict the precise time and date on which the world would come to an end and Christ would return to save the saved and damn the damned.

Many of them were harmless despite their gloom. Some were trouble though.

And as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that there’s more to be learned about God by seeing the good things in life as reasons to turn to God in thankfulness rather than seeing the bad things in life as reasons to conjure up a God wants to harm us.

God never desires our harm. Not for a moment.

We are God’s beloved. Not the object of God’s anger.

Beloved in times of war. Beloved in times of plague. Beloved in times of famine.

Beloved when we need most to be beloved.

When bad things happen they remind me now that God is good. And God loves us in the places where we are afraid most of all.

When we turn to the apocalyptic in the bible for our readings – and a lot of them come to us in the lectionary over the next few weeks, it is important to remember that we are not reading fortune cookies. These are not predictions of what’s coming next.

You can read the apocalyptic in scripture as a foretelling of your own fears if you like. But a more authentic way to read it, I think, is to read it more as an outpouring of how it felt to be the writer in desperate times. It may give us compassion for those who were desperate. It may give us compassion for those who are desperate now.

And the love of God puts down deep roots in compassionate soil.

The apocalyptic fascinates us because the human psyche finds it easy to forget where people have gone before. That’s why we sometimes need explicit calls to remember.

It feels as though our time is particularly barbaric, particularly cruel, particularly insidious.

And yet reading the apocalyptic can maybe remind us that it has often felt that way. Maybe that it has always felt that way.

Modern newsgathering and social media have particular ways of amplifying the horrors of the current age. The apocalypse comes to us in newsprint and on our phones in bite sized tweets daily, hourly, by the second.

And yet, a human being is less likely to die in battle than at any time in recorded history. Thank God.

And yet, modern science makes facing this pandemic utterly unlike facing any before. Thank God.

And yet, we have means of communicating with one another that have given us companionship and connection that we could never have dreamt of before – even allowing us to worship like this today. Thank God.

Apocalyptic writing is a tool for us not a statement of fact.

It is, and probably always was, both a statement of fear and a call to action.

When we hear wars and rumours of wars – we are called to peace.

When we hear of earthquakes and natural disasters – we are called to exercise compassion.

When we hear of destruction and devastation just around the corner – Climate Change is our most present example of a dawning apocalypse – we are called to change our ways and make change happen on a global scale. Called to love this planet. Called to exercise redeeming love.

These things are attributes of God. Peace. Compassion. Redeeming love.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. These things are hard-wired. We have them within. And we can let them roam free in this world.

The apocalyptic writing that we hear in today’s gospel and the apocalyptic writing that we see in today’s newspapers are, each alike, calls to join in God’s mission.

Peace. Compassion. Redeeming love.

For all people. For every place on earth. Forever.

Amen

While the shepherds at night were a-watching

While the shepherds at night were a-watching
Where their flocks in the fields were abiding
Th’angel of the Lord came and stood down beside them
Opened his mouth and then greatly surprised them:
“Shine Jesus shine. Shine Jesus shine”
[Chorus]

Fear not said he for dread had seized them mightily
Minds were troubled, they all worried frightfully
I bring you tidings of gladness eternally
Dance with joy and with me sing supernally…
“Shine Jesus Shine. Shine Jesus Shine.
[Chorus]

Unto you is born now a saviour
Who is Christ the Lord and he made you.
He’s of David’s line, a descendent
Sing now to him for his sign is transcendent:
“Shine Jesus Shine. Shine Jesus Shine.”
[Chorus]

You shall find the heavenly babe there
To human view he looks lovely and very fair
All simply wrapped in bands that are swaddling
Sing to the child in the manger, the Godling:
“Shine Jesus Shine. Shine Jesus Shine”.
[Chorus]

Thus the angel spoke and suddenly
Throngs of angels appeared singing utterly
Beautiful music, their praises lasted long
As they sang forth they repeated the glorious song:
“Shine Jesus Shine. Shine Jesus Shine”
[Chorus]

“Glory be now to God in the highest
Peace to God’s people” they sang without shyness
Unto those upon whom his favour rests
With goodwill, may this song be ever blessed:
“Shine Jesus Shine. Shine Jesus Shine”
[Chorus]