Saturday, May 05, 2007

Easter 5C

Maybe six months out from a Federal election – depending on when the Prime Minister chooses to call it – and the election campaign is in full swing.  The Prime Minister and the alternative Prime Minister are in full campaign mode – you have to wonder how they could possibly maintain the energy and the pace of the last few weeks all the way through till November.  Cracks have been starting to appear, on both sides.  Labor’s starting to release its policies, the Government is starting to hint at a few Budget night sweeteners.

But what’s grabbed my attention at this early stage is how already the issues have been defined.  We know what the main grounds are for this election – global warming and climate change is right up there – Labor promising a whopping 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Prime Minister stirring the pot by promising nuclear powered electricity generation as a way of cutting CO2 emission – the war in Iraq, Labor’s staged withdrawal versus the Government’s staying the course, Labor’s industrial relations policy versus Howard’s Work Choices.  There are massive issues at stake, the real risk is that it’s all such a turnoff, that we all get so sick of politicians we start turning off the issues, but I hope not.  Politics matters, unfortunately.  At the heart of it is a vision of who we are, what we think we’re about, what we think really matters, and what we want the future to look like.

The reality is that a lot of us never really look beyond which party is promising them the biggest tax cut or the juiciest election bribes.  The danger is that we switch off the big picture because it’s all too much, we can’t stay up there for long in the rarefied atmosphere of visions of the future, we become cynical about promises of a new heaven and a new earth, it’s easier to retreat into the arithmetic of tax cuts and looking out for number one.

Which brings me to the book of Revelation.  A strange letter tacked onto the very end of the Bible - some Christians rather wish it wasn’t there, other Christians apparently read nothing else and claim to see in it a weird and troubling prophecy of the end of the world.  A letter written sometime around the end of the first century, maybe early in the second century when the persecution of Christians by Rome was in full swing, Revelation is big picture stuff.  I think it’s utterly appropriate that it makes us uncomfortable because it is over the top, it’s a sort of religious madness, it comes to us from a community at the end of their rope, a community oppressed and tortured and hounded almost out of existence by the world’s biggest superpower, and like the apocalyptic visions of paranoid and embattled religious sects everywhere it makes wild claims, it looks at the world around it where God seems absent, a world where God obviously isn’t in control, and it defies that.   Revelation says God is in control.  Revelation is a vision of hope that’s completely unrealistic - not just of personal salvation, not just of heaven as the realm where God acts, but of a new earth, a new here and now.  It goes against the evidence.  Revelation says, the God of creation, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, is the God of renewal and hope right in the middle of what seems most hopeless, the God who brings laughter and joy right when pain seems insurmountable.  For us to read Revelation, one of the problems is that living in the wealthy and powerful Western world we actually find it easier to relate to the powerful and the in-control, not the precarious and the helpless.  Revelation is a text for terrified Christians whose thinking is lurid, at times even unbalanced.  But the counter-reality vision of the future that Revelation holds out is I think really, really important for us.

The writer’s done his homework.  It’s a vision that’s firmly grounded in Old Testament theology, and St Paul who in the letter to the Romans also speaks about the renewal of creation.  Here, right at the end of the book of Revelation, the vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  As in the vision of Isaiah, spirituality isn’t seen as a withdrawal from the world but as a deep engagement with creation as the arena of God’s love and concern.  Just as Jesus’ own vision of the kingdom of God is never an invitation to focus on going to heaven, but always a challenge to act and to work for justice in the world we live in, so here in Revelation we see this hint of a deep love for creation, and a desire for it to be transformed into what God intends for it.

There’s some whacky stuff that we need to understand even if it doesn’t ring true for us.  ‘The sea is no more’, in this vision of creation as God intended it.  We might wonder at that – why the heck not?  We might feel that the sea is one of the most wonderful analogies of the depth dimension of spirituality, of the ambiguity and the darkness of God.  We Aussies cling to the edges of our arid country, our imagination and our spirituality equally fired up by the icon of the empty red centre and the restless surf or the powerful forces of the ocean.  The ancient world was a bit different, for them the sea represented chaos and danger, monsters and the unknown.  Maybe emerging from the century that gave us psychoanalysis and total warfare, we’re more aware of our own shadow side, and our need for a spiritual landscape that contains both dark and light.

We might find it easier to relate to the image of the new Jerusalem, the renewed city getting lowered down on a rope from heaven.  If for people close to the land, the image of the earth as our mother seems natural and appropriate, then for urban folk it’s not such a big shift.  The city as our mother, as the natural context for our lives.  It’s important to get what’s being said here – it’s not, as some have seen it, the idea that we might trade in the actual concrete and grime city in favour of some spiritual analogy of it up there in heaven – what it is, is the language of hope translated into the actual context of people’s lives.  ‘Let’s get real’, the writer is saying.  The city is where God acts.  The city which is the womb of our lives, the vessel that contains us and shapes our lives, that’s what we dare to imagine God is going to transform and renew.  And how do we imagine that?  How do we dare claim that?  Because that’s the promise we have in Jesus Christ.  God saying to human beings, ‘from now on, I live with you’.  Jesus shows us the God who gets down and gets personal, the God who does the day-to-day with us.  ‘I live in Cannington’ says God.  How does that affect the way we think about the city we live in?  Doesn’t this transform it into a sort of sacrament?  If we dare to imagine, despite the street crime and the arguments between neighbours, despite the road rage and the price of everything that keeps going up, that this is the new Cannington because it’s the city of God?

You can change that vision a little bit, if you like.  You might want to imagine the city-on-a-rope as a new Mogadishu, or a new Darfur.  The point is that it’s actual places that are the focus of God’s concern, actual places where there’s a major disconnection between the reality that God isn’t in control, the reality that God’s will isn’t being done, and the other, apparently unrealistic claim that Revelation makes, that God is in control, that history in fact is the arena of God’s self-disclosure.

We’re back to big-picture stuff, aren’t we?  Just like the election, the only way we can get away from big-picture concerns about who we are and what sort of world we want to live in, is to focus on the hip pocket.  What’s in the Budget for me?  Am I going to get to heaven when I die?  Revelation challenges us to stay focused on what matters.  Revelation challenges us to gamble everything on the God of life and hope, not just for ourselves but for the world we live in.  Care about creation, care about global warming, care about industrial relations and the part our country plays in global politics.  Recognise your own need for spiritual refreshment, for the living water that is God’s life flowing in and through your own, recognise that as what connects you to the whole of creation, that interdependent web of human beings, and animals and birds and billabongs.  Hey, everyone who is thirsty, come here and drink!