The Restoration Continues
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Readings: Zechariah 8:1-7; Revelation 21:1-4
I have seen the recent ads on TV reminding us about putting our winter tires on and I thought about a great advertisement that was outside a tire garage in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia many years ago that I’ve never forgotten. It simply said: “The world is coming to an end, make sure you have your winter tires on now.” I went to the owner of the store, who just happened to be a member of the church I was serving at that time and said, “I’m delighted that you think if the world is coming to an end I’m going to a cool and not a hot place.”
He said, “Anything to get peoples’ attention.” He then sold me a set of winter tires. Clever guy.
The notion of the world coming to an end is thrown around with almost reckless abandon, but it is also taken seriously by many. I was reading recently of a rabbi who believes that he has found a code in the Bible that tells us when the world is going to come to an end. I have read of others reflecting on the notion of Nostradamus being relevant today. I don’t know how many times over the last few weeks I’ve heard people talking in kind of conspiracy theory forms about the end of the world. It is one thing to say that the world as we know it is ending, but another completely to say it is coming to an end.
The world is changing and there is no doubt about that; it’s going to be a very different place after the pandemic, but it’s poles apart to say that the world itself is coming to an end. Unfortunately, there have been those for hundreds and thousands of years, who have used the Bible to justify their knowledge of the end of the world. I came across what I think is a most elegant phrase by a theologian friend of mine, who teaches at the University of Aberdeen, and who worshipped here when he was doing his doctoral work in Toronto. He described what he calls – listen to this – “the weaponizing eschatology by soothsaying doomsday calendarists.” Isn’t that dandy? You’re probably asking, “What?
All he’s saying is that there are people who use this notion of the end time as a weapon. The Bible is being used by such people, and sects have used that notion of the Bible speaking about the end of the age, meaning it’s all going to happen right now. Central to literature used by people who are, as he calls them, doomsday calendarists, are what are known as apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic writings deal with the revealing of God that that which had been previously unknown. Many people turn to the books of the Bible that have that apocalyptic element within it and then they extract all kinds of theories and codes. But what do these books really talk about? Well, today I have chosen two; one of them is the Book of Zechariah and the other one is the Book of Revelation. We’re not looking at entire books, but it is fascinating when you look at the notion of apocalyptic within the Bible, there are within it three main themes. The first theme is one of current despair that has grasped people. The second is that people are looking for a level of transcendence, they are looking for God in this despairing world and they are awaiting a new age or a new time to come. That, I think is one of the great things about apocalyptic, the sense of despair, of transcendence, and a new age. If you look at these two books and our passage from Zechariah, you can understand why it was apocalyptic in nature.
One thing is very clear, he was writing at a time of great despair for the people of Israel. It was after the exile but there was a new oppressive regime coming from Persia under the leadership of Darius I. If you look up Darius I, you will see that his conquests from Greece to Asia Minor to the Middle East were incredible. He had an amazing Persian army, and there’s vestiges of some of the conflicts Darius caused happening this very day. The influence of Darius was great. He was a threat to the people of Israel and Zechariah knew this was happening. He looked at the state of his country and saw the oppression and despair that Darius brought. At the same time, he knew not only that was happening but that the people themselves needed to pray for transcendence. They needed to pray for a new monarch to come and liberate them. He refers to one of them in the Book of Zechariah as the person of the Zerubbabel and he hopes that God will do something great. He’s also hoping that there will be a new Jerusalem, a new age that will come, and despite the conflicts of Darius, despite the oppression, the people themselves will be able to not only maintain their faith but a new world will result.
The Book of Revelation, though written many centuries later, was very similar in its themes. Written during the time of Emperor Domitian, John, in what is known as the Apocalypse of John or Revelation, wrote on the island of Patmos where he was exiled, to the churches of Asia Minor and the early Christian communities. He did so because he knew that they were being persecuted – this is around AD80 or AD90 – by Domitian, Christians were suffering.
He writes to them passionately, but it’s coded language, language rooted in the knowledge of Judaism and there’re all kinds of Jewish images woven throughout the Book of Revelation that the early Jewish Christian community would fully understand. He talks about that fact that there will be a new age, that there will be something that God will do. He speaks of Jesus Christ and the triumph of Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, who is above all the earthly powers. He turns, not only to the transcendent, but to the new age that God will do something powerful. Whether it’s Zechariah or Revelation, these themes of despair, transcendence, and a new age, come across loud and clear.
What does that mean? What difference does it make in our lives whether their view of apocalyptic is superior to those who are the doomsday calendarists? One of the first characteristics of both Zechariah and Revelation is that they believe that faith is a movement from a current conflict to something entirely new, a counter-reality according to Carl Braaten the great theologian. That there is a counter-reality that they now face. When you look at both Revelation and Zachariah there is a sense that the current age they’re experiencing was one of despair and suffering and uncertainty. There were things beyond their control.
Having said that, these were nevertheless writers of hope (and here I really want you to grasp the essential message of apocalyptic) that there is hope. I love the language of Zechariah. Zechariah speaks beautifully. He talks about, for example, horses of war for which Darius was well known being turned into horses of peace. He talks about bowls that people eat from in their homes becoming bowls that are sacred and will be used in places of worship. Think about that for a moment; many of us today are living in our homes most of the time but this was a transition for Zechariah from the bowl that was used in the home being used into a sacred place. There will come a time when the people will gather together again.
I love the phrase; he says “There will be old men and old women sitting in the streets and there will be children, boys and girls, playing in the streets.” There will be a sense of freedom and joy. This image of people coming together and being able to enjoy one another. This is his hope, but it wasn’t happening for Zechariah. The people were fleeing, they were frightened, concerned about an oppressor coming and they lived in fear every single day. But he held out the hope, the vision that there would be a new Jerusalem that would be free from oppression, tyranny, and fear.
Likewise, the Book of Revelation talks about a new heaven and a new earth. That a day will come when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. It’s also a plea for God to act, that the heaven and the Jerusalem that is in heaven will be a Jerusalem on earth and that God will do something. Last week, as I was driving along, I was listening to a song by the Foo Fighters. I’m sure you’re all great fans of the Foo Fighters, and know all their lyrics by heart, but just in case you don’t, I want to quote it accurately because it says in one of the great refrains: “I’m looking for the sky to save me.” I liked it so much that I went back to my phone and downloaded it then listened to it five times in a row. I thought, “You know, that is just exactly what the writer of Revelation was saying. “I’m looking to the sky to save me.” I am looking for an angel, I am looking for God to save me and to save us.
That’s exactly what the Book of Revelation is getting at. But it’s getting at more than that; there is this sense that God will dwell amongst his people, that the people who are living in exile, feeling that their lives have been ruined, will have a sense of God being present in their lives. It is a wonderful thing that the Book of Revelation deals with. It also says that the tears will be washed away from their eyes. This is a sign of the victory of God. This is a sign that even while under the tyranny of Domitian there will be this sense that God is doing something great and powerful.
Well my friends, I don’t have to tell you why I think that’s important; I think you know and have made the connection. You know that we’re living in a time where every single day it seems there is this level of despair that grasps us, that we turn on a television for five minutes and we have conflicting information. We find out that the President of the United States is in hospital or hear banal attack ads and debates where people are put down rather than platforms. We’re tired of this, and of the incessant fear of conflicts between people on the basis of race or culture. We’re concerned about and should be concerned about, the fate of some countries in the world where there is a growing degree of military conflict, like in Nagorno-Karabakh and others.
There is this sense that we live in an age of despair and what we need is an apocalyptic shake up that says “Look, we need new language, a new vision of hope. We cannot, as a humanity, go on in a continual state of despair and questioning. There comes a point where we live and do the right thing, the responsible thing, the caring thing for one another but not lose our sense of hope in the transcendent power. If Zechariah was here today, or if John of Patmos was here today, they would say “Listen to our words. In the midst of despair, we brought hope.” It wasn’t facile because in both cases they were proved right, in both cases there was a sense of redemption. What they experienced in Darius and in Domitian came to an end. So, we might look to the sky to save us but indeed it is God who saves us.
There’s a second ingredient, kind of gutsy part, also of Zechariah and Revelation. That is, we must live in the present age responsibly as well. There is a wonderful quote in the new International Version of the Bible in its description of the Book of Revelation that says, “As God has resolved past conflicts so God will bring present animosities and dangers to a resolution.” In other words, God’s way is to bring us through conflicts. At times I know it’s very hard, and I can’t imagine for people who are uncertain about their jobs, let alone their health, how difficult it must be right now. As we maybe going into another stretch of difficulties we mustn’t lose our hope and we mustn’t lose our perspective. While we experience things in the now, we sometimes lose our perspective of history.
Zechariah, when writing to the people of Israel, talked about a new Jerusalem. He understood that there was a time when Jerusalem was a great city under King David and that there were times when God acted to save it from the Philistines. The Book of Revelation is a recognition of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the triumph of God over the very power of death. So, they both knew that things had that happened in the past were a source of encouragement in the present.
One of my dear cousins sent me a meme this week, some of you might’ve seen it. It depicts three young girls in rags during the Depression and said the following – and I paraphrase because it was a long meme – “Imagine that you were born as a child in 1900. Imagine that by the time you’re 14, World War I started; by the time you were 18, 22 million people had died. Imagine that in your 20th year 50 million died from the Spanish Flu. At the age of 29 you would have experienced the Great Depression with a GDP drop of 27 percent. Then, by the time you’re 39, World War II would’ve started. Between your 39th and your 45th year 75 million would perish, 6 million in the holocaust. By the time you’re 52 the Korean War would’ve begun and 5 million would die. At the age of 64 the Vietnam War would’ve begun and 4 million would die. And in ’62, with the Cuban missile crisis, nearly everyone could have died.”
Maybe a little perspective is a good thing. In other words, we get through things. While our heart breaks and our souls crack from the despair of loss of life, we must not lose sight of the fact that we get through things. But if we’re going to get through things then there must be a sense of obedience too. Whether it’s the Book of Revelation or the Book of Zechariah; they’re both the same. They both talk about the importance of being obedient, of doing the right thing, of looking after one another. I know that Zechariah at the end had some awful things to say about the Canaanites who rolled over in the power and the presence of Darius, but essentially at the heart of it is that we should be doing the right thing in the present age. We mustn’t think of the world coming to an end, as somehow a solution to the problems of humanity, but rather we should live responsibly now and allow God, and God alone, to know the future of the universe.
We live in the present and every single one of us is being called to make sacrifices. Many years ago, actually almost 20 years ago to this month, my uncle took me through the Peak District in England on the way to bury my mother’s ashes in Lancashire. We went through a place called Eyam, a little town that was known for lead mining. He reminded me of something, and I’d heard it recently again from the BBC, about this town during the plague of 1665. In 1665 this town of around 350 people, just a small town, had the plague. They were told that if they went outside the town, they would spread the plague elsewhere. So, with the encouragement of the clergy, particularly one preacher who said that people might need to sacrifice themselves for others, which is Christ’s way. They must not leave the town but quarantine in it.
They quarantined for 14 months and at the end of that 14 months the plague did not spread elsewhere but only 83 residents remained alive. They made the ultimate sacrifice, they gave of themselves, the followed what they thought was the call of Christ and they saved thousands and thousands of lives.
My friends, we are called to make sacrifices right now and those sacrifices are for the sake of others. If apocalyptic teaches us anything, doomsday calendarists have nothing to say in this world, but those who hold out the hope of God in the midst of despair will await the new Jerusalem. Old men and women and children playing in the streets and Jesus being Lord of all. We wait, we wait. Amen.