Arthur Malcolm Stace is, I suggest, the best-known and most widely quoted preacher Australia has ever known. You might not know the name. Maybe it will help if I also say that Stace is also Australia’s earliest, greatest and certainly most prolific graffiti artist ever. Stace, of course, is the man who wrote the word ‘Eternity’ on the pavements of Sydney in chalk over half a million times between 1932 and his retirement in 1960. Stace’s one-word sermon was quoted in full – in letters a hundred metres high –in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the middle of the fireworks on New Years Day 2000 – making him also probably the Australian preacher whose sermons have reached the widest audience ever, and certainly the only Australian preacher whose collected works most of us know off by heart.
Stace, of course, is talking about the end of human existence – not the finish, not the last bit after which there is nothing left, but the end, the destination or the purpose of human existence, which is Eternity. Stace also points us, in the sheer volume of his output and in the surprising ordinariness of the places it was and still is likely to turn up, to the fact that the end of human existence is among us and all around us, right here and now. The end of all things is hidden, but turns up unexpectedly, as Jesus also suggests, like treasure buried in the backyards of our suburban lives; or the love note from your spouse that you discover half-way down your shopping list.
Every year, around the end of the cycle of readings before we get into the exciting business of Advent, the church gives us for the Sunday readings a set of texts that has us think about the end of all things. For the mainstream church and for liberal theologians like me, this poses a few problems. We’re more at home talking about how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom challenges the way we live, challenges the assumptions of a comfortable Western lifestyle, challenges us to re-order our priorities in line with God’s preferential concern for the have-nots, for the ones who are left out. We’re not quite so at home putting on the sandwich board and walking up and down the footpath with a sign that says, ‘the end is nigh’. There are enough people out there doing that already, from the secular prophets predicting the end of civilization as we know it as a result of environmental breakdown or global warming, to the religious ones making tidy sums out of claiming to have cracked the apocalyptic code of international political events. What’s the message for us in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, or in Luke’s warnings of the end of the old ones?
Two words probably sum up everything we need to say – the first one from Stace – Eternity – the second one from Jesus in today’s gospel reading – don’t panic! But let’s look, firstly, at the message of Isaiah.
The first thing to notice is that these last few chapters of Isaiah were written some time after the Jewish people returned from their long exile in Babylon - after the homecoming, after the temple has been rebuilt, to a people who are disillusioned and disappointed because even though they have returned to the land, the reality hasn’t turned out quite as wonderful as the expectation. The glorious future they’d built themselves up to expect had turned out to be fairly ordinary. In this section of the writing, the message of 3rd Isaiah says that Israel’s expectation of political restoration was too narrow, what God is on about is nothing less than a new creation – and if we read it carefully, Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth where meat-eaters turn into vegetarians, where people will live heroic lifespans and children will not be born for calamity – where peace will prevail for every creature except that old trouble-maker, the serpent – Isaiah’s vision reminds us of the creation story of Genesis, it’s a vision of Eden before Eden went wrong. It’s a vision of a new creation where instead of trying to keep secrets from God, and trying to compete with God, humans will depend on God and trust in God’s good purposes. Everything that has prevented creation from being what God intended is going to be taken away – the details of this utopia are less important than the vision itself – of a new creation in which the daily disasters we see on the TV news aren’t going to determine the future of God’s creation – neither terrorism nor military force are going to have the last word in God’s creation – neither political deception nor domestic violence, neither environmental neglect nor poverty are going to limit what human life can be. The suffering in Haiti or Burma is not going to have the last word. Isaiah announces that there’s going to be a radical makeover of the whole creation, a re-integration of the physical and the social and the spiritual aspects of life, and the renewing of our relationships with one another and with God – as Christians, we understand this as the coming to fullness in creation of the resurrection of Christ, or as the outworking of God’s kingdom that Jesus promised in his ministry and demonstrated in his death and his rising into new life. So this reading from Isaiah reminds us not only of the beginning and the purpose of creation, but of the one event within creation that holds everything together - the joining of heaven and earth that begins with the birth of Jesus, and is completed in the resurrection of the Christ. The initiative in all of this is God’s and our job is just to trust in God’s purposes, and to trust that God’s intention is to complete and to fulfil the creation that God loves. When we fall into the temptation of pragmatism – when we look around and say to ourselves, ‘what if this is as good as it gets?’, then we need the perspective of Eternity.
And so to Luke where, at first glance, Jesus seems to be predicting the exact opposite, destruction and chaos and instability. Here again we need to know the context, because Luke is writing after the event, after the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman armies and the destruction of the second temple in 70AD. This was the result of a short-lived revolt against Rome during the late 60s - an unmitigated disaster in which a series of short-lived messianic leaders exploited the general panic – Maybe Jesus back in the early 30s predicted the fall of the temple, maybe Luke is putting words in Jesus mouth – that’s not the real point. But Luke’s readers, this group of Christians, know what it is to have lived through catastrophe and terror, when everything that seemed solid collapsed around them. The point Jesus (or Luke) is making is, know where your centre is, when you see people trading on despair to whip up religious or political fanaticism, people who claim to know the secret code of history – and we have enough modern doomsday merchants for this to be familiar – we’ve seen in recent times how fear of terrorism can explode into irrationality and victimisation – when we see that the realities of the world we live in are driven by fear, and hatred and suspicion, and the secular wisdom is to retreat into our factions, to react to the hype and the one-liners of media editors or doomsday preachers – Jesus says remember where your centre is, live out of the wisdom of God and the centre which is the Holy Spirit, not out of fear. When we fall into the temptation of despair – when we look around at the madness and the darkness of our world and say to ourselves, ‘God must be dead’ – then we need the perspective of Eternity. Luke is realistic – he knows something about conflict and betrayal, he’s not promising that Christians are going to be immune, that we’ll have special protection, but he’s saying live out of trust that our future is in God’s hands, and that even in adversity we can trust in God’s care for us. Trusting God doesn’t mean withdrawing from the events of our time, it means opposing the madness and hatred that fear creates, it means opposing oppression wherever we find it, it means standing up for those in our community who are on the edges, but above all it means living out of the stillness and the wisdom of God, trusting in God’s purposes and God’s intention to complete and fulfil God’s creation.
Today Jesus says to us, don’t panic. Live from the perspective of Eternity, instead.