THE LANGUAGES WE USE
II Thessalonians 2:9-13
O God, you commanded light to shine out of darkness;
shine in our hearts to bring us to the knowledge of your glory,
shining in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
November is a month when the veil between heaven and earth seems particularly thin.
On Wednesday, we celebrated All Saints’ Day, giving thanks for and reflecting on all the saints, all of the Holy People of God over the ages.
On Thursday, we kept the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, All Souls’ Day, remembering those people who have been special parts of our own lives.
Next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, and two weeks later, the last Sunday of the Church’s Year, is the Feast of Christ the King – which then leads us into Advent.
November is a month when the veil between heaven and earth seems particularly thin. As the nights darken, so we spend some time reflecting on the Christian hope, both in this life and in the next.
And that’s why we had the Gospel Reading we have just heard, from the first part of Matthew 24 – a strange and rather unsettling passage, to which I want to return in a moment.
But, before doing so, I heard a quite extraordinary story on Radio 4’s series, ‘Life Changing’, earlier in the week [1/XI/23, 9.00a.m.], now available on BBC iPlayer.
It was an interview with Clodagh Dunlop, a 35-year-old Northern Irish police officer who suffered a terrible stroke in 2015, which left her unable to move or to speak for around three months. She lay in her bed with what is known as ‘Locked-in Syndrome’, where she was mentally fully aware, but completely unable to move or to communicate in any way. Astonishingly, she made an incredible recovery, and about 18 months later, she was well enough to be able to return to her work.
About three months after her stroke, it was discovered by those around her that she was able deliberately to blink, at first, only with one eye. But that was enough to open a channel of communication.
It was limited at first, but was the beginning of the journey towards recovery.
It was a simple system: one blink meant, ‘Yes’; two blinks meant, ‘No’; three blinks, ‘I love you’, and then, which surprised me, four blinks meant, ‘You’re a moron’! That very simple system was enough for her to interact with those around, and to begin to take back some control over her life.
And it made me ponder all the ways in which we communicate, and the different styles and forms of language we use, normally unconsciously, as we go about our daily lives.
We automatically know the difference between the language of the news and that of a telephone directory; or between poetry and the manual for a new washing machine; or between story-telling and reading a dictionary; and so on. We, instinctively, in our every-day lives, are using and listening to different forms of language, and are adept at switching between one form and another.
But sometimes, when we come to the Bible, and a passage such as that from Matthew 24 in our Gospel this morning, we can become less sure-footed.
When Jesus was talking about the destruction of the Temple, or the ‘wars and rumours of wars… which must take place… but the end is not yet’, or the ‘falling away of many’ and the ‘increase of lawlessness’ – when he was talking about all of these things, what sort of language is he using?
Is he saying, ‘This is exactly what will happen’, or is he using strong imagistic words to portray his view of the end times? Is it washing-machine instructions, or is it more like poetry?
Many, throughout Christian history, have tried to take these words literally, to look at the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ around them, in many different centuries, and think that they can predict the date of the Second Coming, often called, since the early 19th century, ‘The Rapture’.
Some have searched the Scriptures and put it in diagrammatic form, such as this from a website called ‘Red Moon Raptures’.
From early times, Christians have climbed a mountain, and awaited the arrival of Christ in Glory – so far, all have had to climb back down again, and, often, decided that their calculations must be wrong, and sorted out another date. There was a good deal of this around the turn of the millennium, over twenty years ago now.
It seems to me that this misunderstands the type of language Jesus is using here, and, even more importantly, that people should continue to read the rest of the chapter, at least as far as verses 35 and 36, where Jesus says, ‘ Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’.
If you want to impress, enlighten or amuse your family and friends, you might want to use the technical term for this thinking about and study of the end times, eschatology, from the Greek, εσχάτων, meaning ‘Finally’, or ‘The last things’.
So, if these words aren’t an exact timetable for the end of all things, and we accept that ‘about that day and hour no one knows’, what are we to make of what Jesus is trying to say to us in this passage – and I do recommend that when you have time today or later in the week, that you read the whole of Matthew 24, to set the passage in context.
There are three sections in the verses 1-14, which we heard. Firstly, the foretelling of the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem [Matt 24:1-2]. It’s possible that Jesus’ words were given a particular emphasis if Matthew were composing his Gospel after AD 70, when Jerusalem, the Temple and everything else, was razed to the ground by the Romans. Or, it may well be that Jesus’ deep understanding of the political atmosphere of his times meant that he could see which way the wind was blowing, and that eventually the Temple would inevitably be destroyed.
In John 4 [:21], Jesus tells the Samaritan woman whom he meets at the well, ‘Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’, which seems to indicate that Jesus did not think that the Temple would be a necessity for his followers after he had died and risen again. Although we have and appreciate our sacred spaces, such as this one, for our worship and prayer – the buildings are not an end in themselves, and the worship in them is more important than the structures which house it.
The second section [Matt 24:1-2], often has the title, ‘Signs of the end of the age’. Every week, as we will do in a very few moments, we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, stating that Jesus ‘shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end’. Every Sunday, we affirm our belief in an εσχάτoν, a final end to all things, when everything that came from God will somehow be returned to him to be swept up in his love. We are constantly encouraged in Jesus’ words to be alert, to watch and pray, to wake up, to look up to the Father – we have to live as if the end could come at any time, and we must be constantly ready – Matthew 24:44, ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’. We are not told to go up the mountain and wait for the end to come. We are told to prepare our hearts to receive him, for he will come, to each of us individually, or to all of us at once, at an unexpected time.
Those who think like Augustine of Hippo around 400 AD, who said ‘O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet’, or who, like the cruel Pinky in Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock, rely on the old verse, ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I asked, mercy I found’, but who then discovered that there wasn’t always time for that to happen – those who think like that need to remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12 [:20], ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you’.
And the third section of our Gospel is a foretelling of the persecutions which would fall upon the Early Church. Again, Jesus could see the signs, he could see how he was being treated, and what his end would likely be, and he warned all of those who follow him that they might have to suffer persecutions, as indeed they did, and as Christians in every age, including our own, still have to do.
In this time of the year, when the veil between heaven and earth seems particularly thin, and as we approach Advent, we are encouraged to face our mortality, but also to contemplate our end in Christ.
If you have time, read this chapter again, but also read it alongside the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, in which, in language which echoes that of this chapter, Jesus says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ [Matt. 28:19-20].
As Christians, we should always be thinking of our end, and of the end of all things – but we also know that we are never alone as that end approaches. AMEN,