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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Grapes of Wrath

It’s a rather bloody matins today.  Forget about Christmas trees, baubles and The Snowman played in a thousand shops while we are at worship this morning.  This is more the grim world of John Steinbeck's dust bowl.  Prepare to be startled, even shocked. Here is Advent in all its seriousness and with the blood flowing freely: death, judgment and hell, laid out for us in two magnificent but perplexing readings.

The Book of Revelation is better called the Apocalypse.  It means the unveiling of what is hidden, kept under wraps until the time is right. It is a familiar genre in the scriptures: the Book of Daniel is its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. In each case what is ‘unveiled’ is secret knowledge about the future.  But not just any future.  Apocalypse concerns the specific future of the people of God: Israel in the Old Testament, the Christian Church in the New. Ask yourself when the future matters most to us.  The answer may be, when it is uncertain, when we have reason to be afraid of it. Apocalypse comes into its own when life is frightening and fragile, threatened by nuclear holocaust, global warming, terrorism, or more personally, terminal illness, death, bereavement. At times like these we want to know whether we shall survive, still be here tomorrow.  To the apocalyptic writers, the threat that promised to overwhelm their communities was persecution.  Whether it was the Seleucid kings at the time Daniel was written, or the Roman emperor Domitian in the days of Revelation: these books are meant to open up a future that puts a question against pain, suffering and mortality.  By affirming that it lay in God’s hands, it aimed to bring strength and hope to the persecuted and afraid.

Apocalyptic uses the literary device of putting these visions on the lips of well-known prophets or seers from the past, those who had proved trustworthy in predicting the future. It reads as if everything that is taking place now was foretold ages ago.  But it was dangerous for the persecuted to speak too openly about their faith. They risked torture and death, as the stories in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees from Daniel’s time tell us. So they adopted elaborate codes, complex systems of symbols and images drawn from the scriptures and elsewhere with which to cloak their visions. ‘Unveiling’ it may be, and perhaps was for those with eyes to hear.  To us, the imagery seems to wrap the text in still deeper obscurity. One of the best and most learned of all Bible commentators, the great John Calvin, professed himself so bewildered by the Book of Revelation that he gave up trying to write a commentary on it. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, you will see that while the gospels, Acts and epistles are read twice through at Morning and Evening Prayer, Revelation is read only once, during Advent and Christmas where today’s baleful reading from chapters 14 and 15 are set, of all days, for Christmas Eve.   

With that background, what do we make of this tough text?  We can at least understand why it has been chosen for Advent Sunday. This season is meant to turn our minds towards the future that is coming upon the world, what theologians call eschatology.  And happy is the church that sustains this powerful theme without distraction all the way to sundown on Christmas Eve. Today we begin this Advent journey by considering the grand sweep of the eternal purpose for the cosmos, for our world, for humankind and for ourselves personally. This purpose contains the old Advent themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven, the four last things that provide such rich resources for our meditation at this time of year.  This passage faces us with all these, but especially with the unwelcome but inescapable fact of divine judgment. I spoke earlier about crisis.  It literally means ‘judgment’ which is when we think about it what every crisis presents us with: a judgment on how we shall respond, what our motives will be, whether the easy speeches about loyalty, goodness, obedience and trust that we make in good times will still be on our lips when things become almost unendurably hard.   

The image of judgment is the ripened harvest.  It is reaped by the Son of Man with a golden crown and a sharp sickle in his hand. The picture is borrowed from our Old Testament lesson in Joel, but which is also present in the ‘little apocalypse’ in the gospels where Jesus says that when the powers in the heavens are shaken, all will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with power and great glory, who will send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13.25-27). The wicked of the earth are always a preoccupation of apocalyptic where they are contrasted to the remnant of the righteous few.  The bloodbath that occurs when the terrible sickle is wielded is likened to the harvested grapes that are thrown into the great winepress of the wrath of God.  There comes a day when evil is openly named for what it is, when in the imagery of our passage, the Warrior gathers the nations to claim his victory and a river of blood spreads its crimson stain across the land. You can see how this image (this time from Isaiah 63) would comfort those undergoing fierce persecution.  Those with no hope whatsoever in this world could only throw themselves on the mercy of God to intervene spectacularly, wind up history, banish wickedness to its place and redeem the his faithful.  The redeemed could then look forward to resurrection and immortality, singing Moses’ song of liberated slaves that we heard at the end of the reading.

But there is another dimension enfolded in this Christian apocalypse; we could miss it if we did not look for it. ‘The wine-press was trodden outside the city’ says the seer.  We know from the New Testament that the shdding of blood ‘without a city wall’ carries a deep significance.  For blood that is shed in that place proves to be not only judgment upon evil but also the redemption of the world. God’s strange work at Calvary, says St Luke,  embraces those who ‘know not what they do’. The cross turns out to be the work of Love where love conquers all things.  At the end of Revelation, the river of blood that issues from the place of the skull is transformed into a river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The essence of judgment is revealed.  When ‘the wounded surgeon plies the steel’, the sickle that cuts into our flesh and bone hurts.  It exposes all that needs to be cut out if the body is to live, for the pain of judgment purifies us from the cancerous corruption that threatens destroy us.  But it saves us from ourselves. 

If we are serious about Advent, this purifying of aspiration and motive is a good task to set ourselves: not as an effort or a work, but as a God-given discipline or ascesis.  It will prise us open more and more to God’s generous, forgiving grace. It will help us to see clearly, mend our broken spirits, strengthen us to become holy and wise once more. Love was, love is always, his meaning. I am not going to tell you in Advent 2012 that this theme of judgment no longer matters.  It does, as anyone who knows the fallibility and corruption latent in the human heart knows well.  So at the core of our Advent longing, before we get to the manger of Bethlehem, must be the realisation that God must act in judgment to root out evil and vindicate whateverall that is true and honourable and just and pure. 

‘In wrath remember mercy.’ Whatever we read in the law and the prophets, in wisdom and apocalyptic is summed up simply in this:  ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.  That is the clue to the heart-work we must do in Advent, Love’s work that God does in us at every moment.  Don’t linger on the intoxicating images of Revelation.  Simply pray the Lord’s Prayer each day.  And add this: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’

Advent Sunday 2012
(Joel 3.9-end, Revelation 14.13-15.4)


  1. Powerful sermon. A worthy reminder of why Advent is a Penitential season.

    (Incidentally, it's John Steinbeck, rather than Steinberg.)

  2. Oops....Strange how the fingers have mind of their own. Have corrected. Thanks for comment.