SERMON: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’

SERMON: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’

A sermon preached at Evening Prayer by Andrew McKearney on 21 November 2021.

When normal everyday language fails to convey the full urgency of what’s being faced, we resort to extreme language and colourful imagery. This type of language is sometimes referred to as ‘apocalyptic’.

It’s called ‘apocalyptic’ because it’s stark and talks about the end of things as we’ve come to known them. And it seems particularly appropriate when we face global issues – the financial crisis in 2008, the current pandemic, the environmental and climate catastrophe.

It’s language that we’re familiar with from the Bible, and its every bit as unsettling and disconcerting in the religious sphere as it is in the political sphere. Why? Because it’s all about crisis, things being turned upside down, the natural order falling apart – and none of us relish that.

In the Old Testament it appears in places like the book of Daniel. That was where our first reading came from this evening. Apocalyptic literature occurs late on in the history of Judaism, influenced by Persian thought, in particular the religion of Zoroastrianism, a religion that still has followers today.

In the New Testament, apocalyptic literature is mostly in the book of Revelation where our second reading came from this evening. But it’s not just there.

Disconcertingly it’s on the lips of Jesus too in the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. You’ll recall those passages where Jesus talks about wars and rumours of wars, nation rising up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines, the sky darkening and the stars falling from the heavens. Throughout he keeps warning his disciples, saying ‘Beware!……Pray!…..Keep awake!’

In the religious sphere, it’s language of crisis every bit as much as it is in the political sphere. So why is it used?

In part its purpose is to get people to wake up and realise the urgency of the present moment. It’s decision time. No more fudging. Are you for God or Satan? Are you going to worship the beast or the lamb upon the throne? Time is short. The moment is now.

Another use for this unusual language is to express protest. Sometimes in situations of oppression and persecution, it’s simply not safe to come out into the open to oppose those who are in power. So people find other ways of doing it.

I remember when Syria was much more in the headlines than it is now, hearing about a Syrian radio broadcaster who has been broadcasting from Idlib, one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria.

The Islamic fundamentalists told him to stop broadcasting music, so instead he broadcast birdsong, sheep noises, chickens clucking. He was then told to stop any female broadcasters from presenting on his channel, so he downloaded software that concealed their voices making it impossible to tell whether the presenter was male or female. He then stopped broadcasting from a fixed place and instead used a car to broadcast from, moving from place to place. Sadly, he was eventually tracked down and killed.

The stakes are sometimes extremely high. And in times of oppression and persecution you have to use all the tricks in the book to survive and get your message across.

The beast in the book of Revelation is given a number – 666 – and that refers to the emperor Nero who was persecuting Christians at the time. Apocalyptic literature is not unlike a political cartoon where it reads innocently enough unless that is you know what’s being referred to.

Another purpose to this strange literature in the Bible that’s called ‘apocalyptic’, is to puncture the pretensions of the rulers of this world, the tyrants, the persecutors, the oppressors. They will not have the last word.

How does the book of Revelation end? With Satan being thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, and the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

How does Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching end: with the Son of Man, coming in clouds with great power and glory.

And how does the book of Daniel end? As we heard: with one like a human being, given dominion and glory and kingship.

Keep faithful, persevere, hang on in there. The times may be dark, very dark, but however difficult the crisis we’re facing is, it won’t last.

So apocalyptic language and imagery has an important role to particularly at times of crisis.

It wakes us up; it challenges abuses of power; and it punctures the pretensions of tyrants and persecutors.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’