Isaiah 65:1725; Luke 21:519
One of my great intellectual heroes is Reinhold Niebuhr, who influenced a whole generation of politicians and academics both sides of the Atlantic. He was clear that in order to achieve any kind of proximate justice in an unjust world the most vulnerable need to be empowered, and he was one of the very first to recognize Nazism for the evil it was and urge that it had to be resisted by force.
The story is told that when he was Britain in 1940 addressing a large conference the lights failed and the hall had to be lit with a few flickering candles. When he resumed he began “The big difference between your culture and mine, is that you don’t think this is the Kingdom of God.” In the light of that remark I wonder what we make of today’s two very different readings?
The first is one of the most wonderful, hopeful passages in the whole scriptures. It is a visionary picture of a totally different world, a new heaven and a new earth in which the sound of weeping and the cry of distress will be heard no more, we will all live until well over hundred and no hurt or harm will be done in all the holy mountain. The context of the passage makes it even more striking, for scholars believe it originated towards the end of the 6th century before Christ when the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and thoroughly demoralized started to rebuild the temple and their lives. Into their dejection comes this message of hope—the future will be radically different. The world depicted in this passage is one that is radiant with light…
The second reading, by way of contrast, could not be more sober. Nation will go to war against nation, there will be famines and plagues, persecution and betrayal even in families. Scholarship suggests that Jesus did indeed say that the temple of stone which dominated Jerusalem would be replaced, in the Kingdom of God, by a new spiritual temple, but the passage as we have it reflects the actual destruction of the temple in AD 70 and a situation in which the church was being persecuted. In any case, this is a world shrouded in darkness, in which only a few candles flicker. At some moments the world in which we live does feel very much like that. Yet there is part of us that never quite gives up on the vision that radiates from the first reading.
We are all of different temperaments and some tend to be optimists and others pessimists; some see the glass half full, others half empty. Some are Eeyores and others display what a character in a Graham Green novel described as “Our baseless human optimism which is so much more appalling than our despair”. But I suppose that most of us oscillate between these two extremes. In one mood life feels good. Indeed many people in the developed world have never had it so good. At other times, when we read the papers or listen to the news, the world seems in a more terrible state than it has been any time since 1939, with the constant threat of terrorism, violence in so many places, climatic disaster looming, abject poverty, disease and growing inequalities in almost every country in the world.
Putting aside our personal temperaments or our swings of mood I would like to suggest that what the Christian faith offers is an undeceived, particularly an unselfdeceived, but hopeful realism. Realism is always in danger of toppling over into cynicism or an amoral real politik. It needs hope that things can come better. Ordinary human optimism is always in danger of degenerating into sentimentality, illusion and mere whistling in the dark. The Christian faith keeps us alive to the brutal reality of life. We know that somewhere along the line the world has gone askew and that daily we betray God and one another. So in the words of W.H.Auden “We have to love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart.” And that reality has to be taken into account. But this realism is kept hopeful by the Christian faith, the hope that God is working through us to bring something of worth out of the mess we make of things.
The novelist William Golding wrote a number of novels with a fairly dark view of human life, of which the best known is Lord of the Flies, in which a group of choirboys find themselves on a paradise island, and quickly split up into gangs and start killing one another. Golding, was once asked whether he would define himself as an optimist or a pessimist and replied by saying he would describe himself as a “universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist”— not a bad way of suggesting a Christian perspective on existence. There is nothing so bad that it cannot get worse. But there is nothing so bad that God cannot work through us to redeem it.
For God is not only the God who brings the universe into existence ex nihilo, but who raised Christ Jesus into a universal spiritual contemporanity and who will raise the person we truly are into life with him for ever. This is a God who daily raises us out of self-pre-occupation and egoism, out of gloom and lethargy to work with him in creating all things new. There are many difficult situations in life when we don’t seem to be making much progress, where the same old problems recur, where it is easy to give up-in ourselves, our families, our local communities and in the world as a whole. I think of some of our parish priests working in deprived areas, perhaps the only professionals actually living in an area beset with multiple social problems with only a small congregation—but there: a presence, a sign of hope. As Brother Roger of Taize one put it, speaking about the God in whom we trust
Trust does not lead us to flee responsibilities but rather to remain present in places where human societies are in turmoil. It enables us to keep going even in the face of failures.
As Christians, whether or not we are personally involved in one of these difficult situations, we can enter into them in imagination and hold them before God in prayer. A remarkable and influential monk of the Russian Orthodox Church who lived in the first part of the 20th century, St. Silouan ceaselessly interceded for a suffering world. In his early years in the monastry the darkness of the world oppressed him heavily. At one point he felt so overwhelmed he asked God how it could be taken away and he felt in his heart the reply “The proud always suffer”. Then when he asked how his pride could be taken away he heard the enigmatic and haunting reply “Keep they mind in hell and despair not” and took this to mean that he had to enter into the darkness of the world and cry with it to God and this he did during World War I, the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of what led to the holocaust. Through his prayer he entered into these hells, and did not despair
He did not despair because God is a God who makes all things new. This happens in our personal lives. As a curate I got to know a man who suddenly started to come to our church. He had been abandoned by his parents and brought up by his grandmother, a heroin addict. He had become a male prostitute. Suddenly after recounting this terrible story he exulted “Out of this mess has come me”. Out of the messes of our lives, God brings something. Out of the terrible and apparently intractable situations in our local communities and in the world God can work though us to bring something, if we allow ourselves to be so used. The Orkney poet Edwin Muir has a poem in which he contrasts life in the paradise of Eden with the world as we know it. He wrote
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and loveamp;3201
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies. *
In a time of so much cruelty and suffering, our Christian hope is that entering into the darkness that afflicts so much of life, in prayer and action, united with Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we will be amongst those through whom strange blessings never in Paradise fall upon our stricken world.
* Edwin Muir, “One foot in Eden”, Collection Poems, Faber and Faber, 1960, p.227