In the midst of chaos

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

Luke 21 and Isaiah 65

The OT and the gospel reading for this week is of the genre we name as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature is generally full of wars and insurrections, fighting and fear, supernatural portents from heaven, predictions of the end of the world followed by new creations of heaven and earth. It is not a particularly pleasant reading and finding inspiration to preach on it is challenging. Fortuitously, I stumbled on a blog written in 2016 by Nancy Rockwell on suffragette protests and how this links to apocalyptic stuff. So I acknowledge Nancy as providing the inspiration for this sermon.    

The other inspiration for this sermon is my brother’s property, which is currently threatened by fire. The issue of climate change needs addressing, as it is really the new apocalypse.

Given the time in history that both Isaiah and Luke write their book, both after the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, it is not surprising to find an apocalyptic tone creeping in. Luke’s Jesus speaks of a world that indeed had just experienced the terror of war, oppression, fear, death and exile. Isaiah looks forward to a time when the temple and Jerusalem are recreated in a new way. The events at each time really must have seemed like the end of the world was upon them.

Many people throughout history have used passages like this to claim that the end of the world is nigh. It seems our world’s history is full of frightening times which soothsayers saw as heralding the end. Fortunately, they have all proved to be incorrect. But this time is different, for the soothsayers and prophets are the climate scientists. Perhaps for the first time in human history, we are actually facing our own annihilation with the threat of climate change and its consequences of rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and destruction of people’s traditional homes on islands and delta regions.

In chapter 19, Luke’s Jesus has condemned the Temple establishment as a “den of robbers” because of its unjust exploitation of widows. He predicts its destruction, evoking the prophets, who similarly condemned those of wealth and status for gaining their wealth on the backs of the poor. Luke believes Jesus is the prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, who would arise to proclaim the eschaton, the end of humanity’s history of injustice.

The Lukan Jesus also provides a dose of reality to people who are wowed by great edifices and wealth. As the disciples stand in awe before the ornamentation and beauty of the Temple of Jerusalem, the place where God allegedly made God’s home among people, Jesus instead tells them that God is actually where they are, God is where their heart and soul are. It is a radical reprioritising of the temple teaching. And fine edifices can cover ugly practices, so Jesus predicts the temple will be dismantled.

Desperate times are, in part, a matter of opinion. Probably every war in human history has led to people thinking the end was near. No doubt to Yemenis and South Sudanese today, it feels like the end of the earth. To many oppressed minorities, it must feel like the end of the earth.

So is climate change really the new apocalypse?

Both the American and Australian governments have pretty much said climate change is a myth, a story used to scare children and tarnish the coal industry. The is a widespread belief among climate change sceptics that it is a plot of the UN, a vehicle to surreptitiously take over the world.  The denial of climate change, the ignoring of its consequences now being played out before us in the catastrophic fires in NSW and Qld, the refusal to mitigate against such things and reduce the risk, all have become political fodder, partisan issues that have polarised voters in both nations.

It is hard not to see the results of recent Western elections as bad news for the climate and the environment. My American friends are in despair, as they believe a white supremacist, xenophobic, climate change denying genie has been let out of the bottle. My Australian friends are horrified at the lack of action on climate change, and the lack of action by our government, including the refusal to meet with fire chiefs and experts to plan a workable strategy for the catastrophic fires they predicted would come. The PM is yet to meet with them, despite their pleas.  Jesus’ comment that our souls will endure during such crisis if we have faith may not be especially comforting at this moment. But is there something we can take from this?

In 2004, Paul Romer, Professor of economics at New York University quipped that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.  In other words, some of our worst experiences provide the most fertile ground so that we can develop some of our best opportunities. New beginnings can be desperate times for the people directly affected. Necessary endings can be insurrections.

Jesus believed that the temple, both its building and its priestly hierarchy, needed dismantling. What are our current the temples that need dismantling? What should replace them as the new creation? Some people believe that the temple of American democracy is under threat. Some people are now saying that the temple of racial and religious tolerance is being dismantled in Australia.

Alongside of this, many poor or working class people see the temple that is being dismantled is the temple of privilege of business, self-serving government and political correctness. They see themselves as disenfranchised voters wanting to make their views known, and they demand to be heard. You may have heard the phrase “the quiet Australians” bandied about. They appear to seek a pathway back to the 1950s where people had jobs for life and stability and white culture and men dominated. I remain sceptical about this temple, as Caesar is not the one overturning the temple tables in the biblical story, and neither is Trump or our current government.

In a world economy based on neoliberal economics and the capitalist system, where people’s worth is measured by their productively only, where money from fossil fuels is seen as more important that the survival of the human race, and where the environment is a commodity to be exploited rather than the thing which gives us life, it is becoming necessary that this temple of empire should be the one dismantled and a new creation constructed in its place. 

Those of us who follow Jesus and who bear his name, Christians, need to consider whether we are colluding with the empire, or being its prophetic critic and conscience as the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation become clearer.

A major report called: ‘The Human Impact Report: Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis’; is a comprehensive report looking at the human impact of climate change. Produced by the Global Humanitarian Forum, the report estimates that climate change today accounts for over 300,000 deaths throughout the world each year – the equivalent of an Indian Ocean Tsunami every single year.

By 2030, the annual death toll from climate change will reach half a million people a year. The report also indicates that climate change today seriously impacts on the lives of 325 million people. In twenty years time that number will more than double to an estimated 660 million, making it the biggest emerging humanitarian challenge in the world, impacting on the lives of 10% of the world’s population.

Climate scientists, scientists who study bushfires, doctors who research disease, and those who study rising sea levels are all telling us we are facing disaster on an unprecedented scale. Yet both the American and Australian governments refuse to stop propping up the coal industry and have thrown as many obstacles as possible to delay the transition to renewable energy and lowering emissions.

But the situation is that this apocalypse is not going away and we have little time left to try and reverse it. In my Facebook feed lots of posts and articles say things like “We have survived wars and plagues and stuff before, we will survive this”, or even “only God can change the climate”.

Such posts and articles are the sign of a system seeking to stabilise in the midst of chaos. Yet it is only when we allow chaos to happen, and we engage with it, can true and lasting change happen. Instead of rushing to rebuild the temples that no longer serve us well, and restabilise the system, we need to put down the bricks, and ask, why? Why has this happened? What is it telling us? What is the change that needs to happen to prevent the apocalypse of unchecked climate change so opposed by those in power and by many who vote for them?  What do we need to do to get action on climate change when unprecedented flooding and catastrophic fire conditions not seen previously apparently don’t get the message through? How do we grasp this chaos and shake it into a new heaven brimming with light, and a new earth teeming with life? How do we embody the kingdom of God?

Both the passage in Luke and Isaiah infer that all of the injustice and suffering will end, and out of the chaos will come a “new heaven and a new earth”, the ‘kingdom of God’, from the God who makes things new, who seeks reconciliation with a world that is broken. It is fair to ask then, when can we expect this Kingdom to come, and transform our current reality?

If we just sit and wait, we will probably be waiting for a long time and will end staring down the barrel of our own extinction. But if we take the words of Jesus, and of James, the brother of Jesus, we discover that “faith without works is dead.” It is up to us to start helping God to create the new heaven and earth. We need to loosen our tongues and witness to a kingdom where a saviour said ‘love you enemy’ and God said “care for my good creation”.

I recently attended the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change conference, and Professor Lesley Hughes, a notable climate scientist, presented some very depressing data. It made me feel very pessimistic. Is there any hope? I talk to the attendees around me, people not only from our church and other churches, but Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Quakers and Hindus. They express the view that hope is really the best thing we have going for us. Despair, whilst a realistic response when seeing the data, is not a helpful space to dwell in. Mobilising people in our churches, forming networks, and protesting to push our government to take meaningful action on climate change and avoid the horsemen of the apocalypse really is an imperative.

Taking seriously our consumerist lifestyles and changing then is a great challenge in a society based on cheap goods, acquisition and “lifestyle”. Our use of cheap air travel (a huge cause of emissions), addiction to cars and to lots of meat, is contributing to the problem.

We need to hope, organize, protest and proclaim, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help free the oppressed. We need to reduce our reliance on coal and curb carbon emissions. We need to live like we believe that the kingdom of God is coming because we those of us who bear the name of Jesus have accepted that we have a role to play in helping it arrive. We need to pray for a spirit of wisdom so we learn to be open, trust without fear; and discern what being called to faithfulness looks like. We need to be vocal and speak out about the lethal consequences of unchecked climate change.

As we work to create a more just society that reflects the spirit of God, as we face times of chaos and injustice as people of faith, we need to remember that we are disciples of an embodied faith where justice and shalom are not only for heaven, but can be established, with our help, here on earth. If we allow ourselves to be empowered by the spirit of God we will not rebuild temples that have outgrown their usefulness, or that participate in the oppression of vulnerable people or drive us to the brink of extinction. Rather, we will see this moment as a divine invitation to hope, to rebuild a temple based on love, peace and equality, that embodies the shalom of God and the wholeness and goodness of creation.  Amen.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth was minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, between 2018 and 2023. Elizabeth retired in December 2023 and has moved to Dungog in the Hunter valley, with her husband Rev Dr John Squires.

Over the years, Elizabeth has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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