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Apocalypse and Uncovering: Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost; Remembrance Sunday:
Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19

Last year I shared a brief story from my friend Billie Anne, a retired teacher, whom I met during my theological studies. It seemed to have caught people’s attention at a retirement home service this past Friday, so I thought we might revisit it today.

There was a Little Old Lady at the parish in which I grew up. 364 days a year, she was a housewife and secretary to her husband’s business. But not on Remembrance Sunday. She would wear a black suit, complete with hat and gloves (long after hats were no longer considered fashionable). The storm(s) she created if the service was not absolutely perfect, if the bugler was slightly off, if the hymns were not absolutely suitable were worthy of historical record. AND she wore a literal chest-full of medals, none of which she would identify. The veteran fathers I knew wouldn’t/couldn’t identify them either, except to say something non-committal like ‘I’m not sure, but I think they’re rare.’

In 1996, upon the expiration of the Canadian War Secrets Act, her husband (not her) let it be known that she had been taught Japanese when WWII began and had been a team leader at the Canadian equivalent of Bletchley Park working in the Japanese Section, that she decoded some papers that hastened the end of the war. She took her vow of silence. Even her husband did not know what she had done until 1996, and they had gotten married during the war. Her medals were presented to her by the Canadian, British, and American governments.

To the day she died, she said very little about her war service. If you met her, you’d have thought she was ‘just a quiet mouse of a housewife’.

The word “apocalypse” — a word that comes up a fair bit these days: regarding international relations, regarding illness, or regarding the environment; a word that comes to mind in times of war; a word we reach for when something is truly chaotic, or overwhelming, or extreme; a word (or concept, at least) that Jesus knew (as we heard in the tense gospel reading today — it’s a word that has a more ordinary meaning than we might expect from all of this. It means “revealing” (hence the Book of “Revelation”) or “uncovering.”

The story my friend told about the ‘church mouse’ (who was so much more) was, in a sense, apocalyptic, in that it’s about the uncovering of her life and service. A very significant and solemn reality, always there, but under the surface. Waiting for the right time to be revealed.

We sometimes shy away from the apocalyptic bits of our faith. Because we see through a glass darkly. We might not know what exactly is lurking under that surface. The things we make out are indeed sometimes scary, or troubling, or complicated. The peace activist priest Daniel Berrigan wrote a book about the Book of Revelation and called it The Nightmare of God. But when we go to bed, none of us are looking to drift off into nightmares. But there’s grace in the apocalyptic, because it shows us that there’s nothing outside of the gaze of God. There’s nothing in human life and experience that doesn’t rub up against our faith. So in the difficult, even nightmarish apocalyptic visions there can be a grace that is being revealed. Berrigan wrote that “[e]vil would like to play its game behind the scenes… But Christ urges the forces out, prods them, like beasts into the arena.”*

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” And persecution, division, and death. Jesus tells his followers to be aware of the signs of the times. Face the uncomfortable, and even the tragic. And look for what is being uncovered. In the sharing of stories in recent days, we’ve heard of ordinary, everyday — and often young, too young — people put in impossible, nightmarish situations — but what that revealed was courage, and loyalty, sacrifice, and valour. It also reveals and uncovers the inclination in human society toward conflict and rupture.

After our Remembrance Day morning prayer service, someone remarked about a family member depicted in one of the photographs at the back of the church that we understand better now how the trials and traumas of the war led to the challenges that were manifested in that person’s life upon returning from Europe. Our remembrance and growing understanding around trauma has helped to uncover this. And so we can look upon a difficult post-war life with some empathy through that process of revealing.

Jesus points us to these signs not so that we can, as one person [Vernard Eller] has put it, “calandarize” the apocalypse, as some are tempted to do. Because if we could calculate the final, full revealing of God with any sort of precision, then some people — separated by time — would be let off the hook. They — we — need to be “constantly awake and perpetually ready” for the revealing of God.** (There’s parables about that, about keeping lamps lit, and an ear out for the returning master.)

Even as we face our nightmares — nightmares into which our loved ones and forebears were sent — we ask: ‘what is being revealed’ about us, about the other, and about the world. And where is God, in this? And Jesus spoke with soberness the reality of pain and death, and Luke’s second volume, Acts, bears this out: leaders in the early Christian community suffering greatly. And yet, he called for endurance. And the Gospels themselves, put to paper in what felt like the apocalypse for many: the destruction of the Temple, the place of the very Presence of God. Yet the early Christians, surely also traumatized by this, knew that God was still present to them.

And they would have known well the words their ancestors held dear, as we heard from the end of the Book of Isaiah: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

There is revealing happening, both in the stark apocalyptic predictions, and in the comforting words of hope. We hold together the thanksgiving and the sorrow. Nothing outside of the gaze and concern of God.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

Daniel Berrigan, The Nightmare of God: The Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock 1983), 30.

** Vernard Eller, The Most Revealing Book in the Bible: Making Sense of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1974), 17.