The text of my sermon at Emmanuel College Cambridge (27th October), drawing from Hosea 4:1-3 and Revelation 21:1-4:
“Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore, the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”
The year I was born, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. He argued that humanity had finally reached our ideological evolution – western liberal democracy would be the final form of human government. While there might still be temporary setbacks, the markets and parliamentary democracy would win out. Fukuyama was not alone in feeling this way: my history teachers at school also marched to the beat of liberal progress, convincing us that we lived in a world that would only improve: the more we know, the better we get. The more we know, the better we get. 1992 feels like a long time ago.
The year I was born, there was not a single month in which the surface temperature of the Earth was below average. This has been true every single month of my life. We teeter on the brink of climate chaos, our political and economic ideologies refusing to catch up to data. In fewer than 30 years, this promise of an end to history has turned out to be little more than a fantasy. Many of us are angry. Many more are already dying.
Perhaps in recognition of our failure to ‘end history’, our visions of the future have changed. Recent years have seen a frenzied turn to dystopia in our science fiction. Visions of earthly destruction are back in fashion. The prophetic words heard this evening from the book of Hosea would not be out of place as a description of an opening scene in a new Hollywood Blockbuster: the oldest sins committed in the newest ways. So – given these apocalyptic times, it seems fitting to turn to apocalyptic scripture – and to learn how to use it today, starting with the ravings of the prophets to the people of Israel and ending in the weird visions of John of Patmos. Perhaps this is not what you were expecting from a Sunday evensong, and this series is called ‘if I could preach one sermon’ after all – hopefully this isn’t the last time I’m allowed to preach – we’ll see how it goes.
The book of Hosea is one of several prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible which draw on apocalyptic themes in order to reveal God’s purposes for God’s people. In this context, apocalypse means an unveiling– not necessarily offering strict predictions of the future, but a vehicle for revealing the way things are– the apocalyptic offers a God’s eye view. And so we get these visions whose power is in accurately capturing our experience of the present, and offering a vision of where that present might lead us, depending on the choices we make, and where our hope lies. The prophets might be denouncing different things – for Hosea, it’s idolatry, for Amos, it’s injustice – but mapping the consequences of those sins is dealt with in some fairly consistent ways: announcing the sin of the people, painting a horrifying picture of the consequences of that sin, and reminding them of God’s promises. Importantly, the apocalyptic wasn’t just understood as a dialogue between humans and God: it encompasses all things in heaven and on earth. The whole community of creation is caught up in the drama. History takes place somewhere. And that somewhere matters.
This is why our reading from Hosea this evening directly links violence amongst the people to the reversal of the order of creation. If you bring to mind the creation stories in Genesis, you’ll recall that they describe God commanding life to come forth from the sea, and the air, and the land, Hosea describes death coming to each of these groups in the reverse order: a de-creation. We are part of a wider community of creation, and our violence and greed has far reaching consequences. Yesica Patiachi Tayori, a leader of the Harakmbut tribe in Peru, made a similar de-creation connection while at the recent Amazon Bishops conference in the Vatican: “Eden is here in the Amazon and we are destroying it. We cannot worship God when we are destroying his creation.” For the people of Israel, bloodshed polluted the land it fell on. Our own industrial Empires – first in coal, then in oil – have polluted the earth with bloodshed over and over again. The climate crisis is just the latest – and most far-reaching – example of this ancient story.
For the prophets, the land is not a silent recipient of our sin. The land is NOISY. It is not only a vehicle for God’s judgement. It cries out in its own right: “the land mourns” – a word that also means ‘dries up’. The land doesn’t just mourn in this passage in Hosea, but on 8 other occasions in the prophetic literature. In different contexts it mourns on behalf of the LORD, itself, or the people of Israel. This is not just a recognition of the belief that God would punish disobedience with physical consequences, but a lament which makes an observation about the way things are – greed and violence trigger further violence, food scarcity, and animal death. The prophetic apocalyptic writings can teach us how to tell the truth – about the violence around us, the consequences of that violence, and the anger and grief which we should rightly express.
But the role of the earth in prophetic apocalyptic writing does not end with de-creation. Images of destruction and re-creation go hand in hand. Listen to Hosea’s message of hope which parallels his warning:
“I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolishthe bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety…
On that day I will answer, says the Lord,
I will answer the heavens
and they shall answer the earth;
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel;
and I will sow himfor myself in the land.”
How does this hope work in an otherwise bleak landscape? Can we claim that this vision was in any sense truefor Hosea, or for us? I do not believe that we are going to watch a 180-degree turn towards life. Instead, we are watching Empires behave as they always have done: the powers of this world cling furiously to wealth, drill more, build more pipelines, and crack down on protest and the cries of the oppressed – the oldest sins in the newest ways. Or, as the prophet Jeremiah puts it, ‘they dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. Peace, peace, they say, when there is no peace’.
I also don’t believe that the people of Israel were convinced that lions lying down with lambs – or the end of all war – were sensible things to expect. Prophetic hope insists that a different world must be possible, and then insists we live as though it must be possible, even if it seems totally unreasonable in the present. Violent language, and language of grief about that violence, is a reasonable, appropriate, and realistic response to the state of the world. But visions of peace did not likely look reasonable, appropriate, or realistic to the people of Israel, or the church under the thumb of Rome, and they certainly don’t look that way in this era of climate breakdown and mass extinction. And yet it is also the prophetic task to declare peace while telling the truth about the reality of violence. Realism is an important component of prophetic work, but it can’t end there. We must both express the material truth of the danger we are in and the theological truth of the hope we cling to.
The Church should be better at this unrealistic hope. After all, we believe in the actually, really, resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, despite our overwhelming experience that dead people stay dead. Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make, by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation. And so we turn to the Book of Revelation:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
While the context of this vision is obviously distinct from Israel’s threatened or realised exile, John of Patmos deliberately chooses to align himself with this ancient prophetic tradition. Many of the most confusing parts of the book of Revelation (like stars falling from the sky, grass burning up, locusts destroying crops) are drawn directly from the de-creation narratives of the Hebrew Bible. But in our passage this evening John draws not on de-creation but re-creation, specifically the re-creation imagined in Isaiah 65:
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.”
Is the hope of ‘newness’ a comforting lie in a dying world, or – as I regularly get told – a promised replacement for the horror of the present, stripping this earth of eternal meaning? Not for John. The ‘heaven and earth’ he uses the same ‘newness’ language as Paul does in his second letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation! The old things have passed away, all things become new!” Just as our newness in Christ is not the destruction of our old bodies, so the newness of the earth is not destruction, but transformation. And this means that what we do now matters for eternity.
In the words of NT Wright: ‘what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff… you are… accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness… (every deed) that makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world… will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.’ As the prophets of the Hebrew Bible envision God making good the promise of the tabernacle in coming to dwell with God’s people, so John envisions God making good the work begun in the incarnation of Jesus: God comes down to dwell with God’s people forever. And I choose to believe this, choose to be hopeful, even on the days I do not feel hopeful at all. I choose to believe that what we do on earth matters, even if we cannot now reverse the tide of death that we face. This is because we are in the business of resurrection – the business of bringing life out of death.
Hopeful living in a time of climate breakdown needs our grief and anger. Why? Because grief and anger imply an awareness of an alternative. Anger and grief are not just accurate expressions of the state of things but also a tool to provoke changed behaviour. They remind us that this violence is the result of a choice, of sin. As far as the community of creation is concerned, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to turn back. The prophets teach us to be honest about the realities of sin, greed, and grief. They call for radical changes, not small adjustments to existing systems. And they teach us how to be absurdly hopeful, painting visions of peaceful futures when that seems impossible. Time for us to start imagining the end of the world as we know it.