May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.†† Amen.
Now this week, as is occasionally my wont, I have decided to stray from the allotted path - and don't worry, I'm not about to use the pulpit as a confessional, rather, I have decided to ignore the lectionary and preach on a topic that has been on my mind.†† So apologies to those who have come looking for a greater insight into Luke Chapter 11 - maybe you'd like to try the internet.
The topic that has been occupying me this past week has been that of apocalypse.†† What, you may ask, has brought on such dramatic thoughts?†† Well two things really, I was dwelling on natural and man made disasters.††
The natural disaster has been this past week's flooding across much of the centre of the UK.†† The worst ever - or so the media would say.†† I personally doubt that, given that the media consider that time only started with their own inception, but no doubt we are seeing a natural disaster in this country, the like of which we have not seen in our short memories.††
The pictures on our TV screens, which we can thankfully view from a safe distance in the dry uplands of Cheshire, are almost biblical - a reminder of the Great Flood, a reminder of the frailty of our supposedly complex and superior lifestyle.†† A reminder, if it were needed, that we're still puny when compared to the power of God's natural world.††† Our existence, which we all take for granted is threatened by minor shifts and changes in our normally reliable weather systems.†† We are never more than one bad weather forecast away from apocalypse.
So that's my natural disaster, what of my man made disaster?†† Well this is an apocalyptic event that hasn't happened yet and hopefully never will† - an event entirely of our own making and one that we have lived with for 60 years and have got a bit complacent about lately - namely the threat of nuclear war.† Now don't worry, I'm not going all CND on you, let me explain what got me thinking in this vein this week.
I travelled to the Middle East a few days ago and spent a couple of days in Saudi Arabia.†† It was not my first trip to the country but every time I go, I am struck by two things.† Firstly, the cultural difference with our lives here in the West and secondly the outward signs of political instability even in this, one of the most stable regimes in the region.
Culturally, this is a young country that has developed out of all recognition in less than 100 years.†† A country with little or no natural resources whose people survived as desert tribes - a country that would have looked very much like it did in biblical times until the discovery of oil.††
The unearthing of that natural resource propelled the Kingdom into the 20th century with the force of a rocket.
Now they have money and have been developing the means to spend it at breakneck speed.†† Fancy cars, shopping malls, restaurants and all the unwanted bits that come with that - obesity, heart disease etc.†† They are also host to the two most important sites in the Islamic world, Mecca and Medina; in fact the formal title of King Abdullah is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.†† This responsibility, coming as it does alongside all that money creates quite a headache.††
As the centre of the Islamic world, they have a duty to uphold the faith but all that wealth creates so many opportunities to do the opposite that they find themselves in a constant state of turmoil.†† So you have the incongruous site of young girls dressed from head to toe in black burkhas sporting the latest Gucci and Dior sunglasses on the one part of their anatomy that is on show.††
You walk around a beautiful and gleaming shopping mall past Debenhams, Saks and Starbucks but find your route to the top floor of the mall barred by a guard whose job it is to stop men going onto that top floor which is reserved for women only where they can buy underwear etc, without overly excited males getting hot under the collar at the corsetry.
This really is where East meets West - the true clash of two cultures.† I mentioned to a Saudi acquaintance that one advantage of the burkha must be that the ladies don't need to worry so much about what they are going to wear and must therefore be less concerned about fashion than ladies in the west.† On the contrary, he said, they are even more concerned.† When they all get together without the burkha the competition to be fashionable is truly Olympian.
But - I'm straying from my point - apocalypse.† This constant battle between the western world and the Islamic world that is so apparent in Saudi Arabia is the source of great friction.†† The leader of Al Qaeda - Osamu Bin Laden is a Saudi - from one of the richest families in the Kingdom.†† This is a country that is always needful to 'watch its back'.†† There are checkpoints and armoured cars all around the city of Riyadh - ready to pounce on the terrorists should they be foolish enough to surface.
The situation is even more difficult in Saudi's near neighbour, Iran.††† This is a country that has swung from being a largely secular state under the Shah to a totally Islamic state after the Islamic revolution and then started to relax and loosen up again until 2005 when the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power.†† An ex republican guard, he has swung the country back to Islamic fundamentalism.†† Woman are arrested for having too much hair on show, America and Israel are denounced at Friday prayers as being the axis of evil and executions have risen dramatically, Iran coming second only to China for the number of people executed last year.
More worryingly Ahmadinejad has decided that he needs more than just a bark to take on America and Israel, he needs a bite as well and they are well on their way to developing a nuclear weapons capability.†† Unlike the Iraqi 'weapons of mass destruction' debate that preceded the invasion of that country , this one seems to have substance since the Iranian regime is proud of it's development programme and has no desire to deny it.††
This, needless to say has got governments in the West worried to the extent that a strike on Iran is being seriously considered by both the Americans and Israelis.†† This may seem curious to us given the current mess in Iraq but the received wisdom is that this would not amount to an invasion but rather air strikes to attack the nuclear capability - best that we strike first before they have a nuclear bomb† etc etc.†† So you see why this hoary old chestnut of nuclear war is once again on the agenda.
So the prospect of nuclear destruction - our modern day apocalypse is still very much with us.†† Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we've all got a bit blasť about it - assuming that Russia and America had put the nasty toys back in the cupboard.†† The reality is, of course, quite different, with each of these countries still possessing the capability to destroy the world many times over.†† Not that they're alone.†† China, Britain, France and Israel could all manage the same macabre trick and if we now have Iran joining the fray then anything is possible.
So you see, why I got thinking about apocalyptic events.†† But what has this got to do with all of us sitting here today?†† Christ, of course, warned us of apocalypse.†† In the 21st chapter of Luke's gospel, he tells us the following.
"Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven."
Not a passage we spend too much time dwelling on is it.† Talk of apocalypse isn't too popular so we tend to avoid it when we can.†† Jesus goes on to tell his terrified disciples as they gaze at the mighty and inviolable temple in Jerusalem that...
"The days shall come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down"
They like us didn't like all this talk of death and destruction - it's uncomfortable so we avoid it.†† But Jesus goes on - and here's the important bit,
"When you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified".
One of the problems with dwelling too long on apocalyptic events is that we do get terrified and our terror leads to a natural defensive mechanism - a numbness or paralysis brought on by fear of the future.†
This leads to an approach to life that I think we see more and more of in these troubled times, an approach that says, I can't control the future so I needn't bother about it.†† Why worry about what I do here on earth when it might all end tomorrow.† Let's live for today - not worry about tomorrow.
So how can we avoid this paralysis brought on by our innate terror of what the future might hold?†† How do we avoid being a society that is so focused on the here and now that we turn in on ourselves and only worry about No 1?††† Well there is only one way and that is to take the view that we have already seen the end.†
The apocalypse that really matters occurred some 2000 years ago when Jesus of Nazareth died on a crude wooden cross on a hill in Palestine.††† In his death, the entire history of the universe reached a turning point.†† At that moment, when he was nailed to a cross, the conflict between life and death, between good and evil, between God and mammon was resolved in favour of God's lordship over existence.†
A new Kingdom was established with the death and resurrection of Christ - a Kingdom that doesn't depend for it's continued existence on whether George Bush or Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushes their finger onto a red nuclear button but one based on what God has done and is doing for us and for the world, rather than on what we do.
Not to be terrified of the future of our unstable existence is only possible for those who are convinced that something decisive has happened in the life and death of Jesus Christ, that God has entered our world, despite what we do with that world - and that he will never desert us.†† There is no way to think about the future realistically without thinking with faith in the fact of God's loving grasp on the future.
In John 14, Jesus says to us, "My peace I give to you, not as the world gives peace".†† The peace that we should pray for is that peace, His peace - not some dodgy deal brokered between enemies.†† This peace is only God's to give.†
It doesn't depend on the affairs of men and the way that we will mismanage the future.† It depends on God's grace and in our belief that in Jesus Christ, history has already come out right.† We have already seen the end.
Frightening times are times for us to bear testimony.†† There can be no better work for us as Christians than to spread the good news of our salvation - to testify to the fact that God rules the world, nations do not.† History has already come out right - the Lordship of Jesus Christ has already been established.† This is the only thing that lasts in this world, the only truth which is sure.
If we needed reminding that God's in charge then our inability to manage the weather is surely timely.††† All our sophistication can't stop the rain from falling and can't stop the rivers from flowing.†† It's not much consolation to anyone whose house is knee deep in water this week but it is oddly reassuring when you see that God's power is always superior to man's puny attempts to control it.†††††† Let us pray