Fireground, Adelaide Hills

On the Beach

This happened in 1988 and was preached as a sermon at Belair.  Some of the imagery is not quite so fresh in our consciousness... or  perhaps it is truer to say we are now a little inured to the ozone and greenhouse crises...  Today we would also include the events like those of September 11 in the our apocalyptic vision. 

The sermon illustrates how we change.  Whilst my theology of epiphany has grown stronger, I am not sure I could preach this sermon today... its interpretation of the scripture no longer "rings true."  But the experience on the beach remains.  We always interpret our experience with our world view of the time.  Jan 2007

In 1957 the world was in the Cold War. Neville Shute wrote a book which captured the world's fear of atomic war. He called it One The Beach. This was no early 80's movie about "the day after." In On The Beach everyone dies. But the people in Australia, and a some Americans in a submarine have a few months respite before the insidious radiation cloud comes down from the northern hemisphere. Shute tells the story of their waiting and their dying. As the title of that pessimistic and hopeless apocalypse the words "on the beach" have a sense of threat and menace to those who have read the book.

On Thursday, I was on the beach. Not a tame beach like Glenelg with its kiosks and high rises. But a beach of the Southern Ocean. A wild beach. There was a desert of dunes at my back and a 20 metre strip of beach being pounded by a drowning sea. I rode for some miles along this beach and it seemed all the world was a strip of firm sand bounded by merciless sea on one side and a shifting wilderness of sands on the other. It was a strange experience as this strip of safe life seemed almost to pass under me- sometimes the beach was so narrow the very dunes themselves were wet from last night's tide. And I could see little sandy cliffs which had been beaten down into the sea.

I was afraid. I had blithely gone down to the sea. I'd ridden across the lands under our control- fenced, farmed and bitumenised. I gone over the hills and across the bridges with all the arrogance of motorised man. And now, here, on the beach, I was seeing the reality of life. The reality that we are a being who is very fragile and very small, stranded between sand dune and drowning sea.

I couldn't help thinking of the reading for this week- signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world-Luke is talking about a time when the very powers or heaven will be shaken. When political distress will be so acute and the cosmos so disturbed we will truly feel we are on the beach. Can we imagine the ozone layer crisis, the greenhouse effect, the inexorable advances of a hitlerish blitzkrieg, and Hiroshima all in one? That is today's translation of yesterday's images. And it is very easy to feel, even if only for our children's children rather than ourselves, that we're on the beach being surrounded by inescapable forces and pressures.

What do these end time sayings of the Bible mean? How do we face wars and rumours of wars? How do we live in the shadow of nuclear winter? How do we face the ever-recurrent reincarnation of Malthus in Silent Spring, The Population Bomb, and The Limits to Growth? --today he is clothed in the Greenhouse Effect and the Ozone Layer. With this collection of Jesus' sayings Luke is telling us that such things are not the end. They are the "signs of the age." This is how things will be. This is life. There is no Eden for us... this is life.

The sun may shine on Glenelg and the water sparkle. There will be idyllic Sunday outings on the lawns with the water lapping gently at the edge. But even in little idylls like our own quiet moment in history there are rips beneath the surface. And the fabric- should we say the fabrication- of our Eden is torn as reality bursts in with apocalyptic rumours of neutron bombs and famines and AIDS on the TV news, and even some of their realities among us.What does Jesus say to us for these times? What does he say for the times when it seems so bad that we can hardly believe other than that this is the beginning of the end- you know, for those times when waves of fear or despair for the world and ourselves was over us.

He says, "When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!" "Lift up your heads!" As bad as they are these signs paradoxically point to Gods' control and Jesus coming again... "the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory... for our redemption."

I cannot describe the how of this- or the why. All I can do is tell you about being on the beach. I stopped and sat on the edge of the dunes after that surreal and frightening experience of the bitter sea and borderless sand dunes passing by me. And now I sat and watched. Grey-green waves and off white surf blended with hanging grey clouds. And out past the constant roaring surf was a deep grey-black cloud on the horizon. A flat wet menace that seemed to seep into all the rest of the sea and clouds. This cold centre of darkness hung over the whole of the world.I had on the layers of leather and flannel of a motorcyclist expecting a long ride in the rain. Warm clothes, yet in the end the chill seeped through them all.

Somehow I didn't notice the shark's head when I first sat down. But there it was 15 feet in front of me. The shark, the Lord of the Sea, was torn in halves and dead on the beach. The only living things with me were the flies in the head. It smelled.

I sat there for a long time. Many images passed through my head, but the overwhelming image was that intruding black cloud in the centre of all I could see. A foreboding and threatening symbol of all my fears in the face of the power of the sea and what might come in my future.

When I feel deep emotion I sing. Somehow there always seems to be a tune which voices the emotion and lets me feel and bear and taste the richness of what God is giving. There were many tunes on Thursday, expressing fear and hope and joy. But in the end I sang a coda over and again... "Holy, holy, holy. Lord God on High" A tune which rose and fell in a perfect melody I can't for the life of me sing now! As I sang it over and over the roar of the sea grew louder and stronger singing a harmony to the glory of God.

With a bike on the beach you need to be careful There are patches of soft sand which will throw you off, just like life. Especially on fearful, black cloud Thursdays. But I put my helmet on the back of the bike and raced back along the water singing the Lord's song.... Holy, holy, holy Lord...

You see, we might be on the beach. But it's the Lord's beach. And we're the Lord's people. And with the foretaste of heaven in our mouths we can fairly race down the beach and exult in this life. We can lift up our heads because our redemption is drawing near. Already the Lord has come. The bitter salt flung at us by the angry sea is now the spray of exultation. The Lord will come again. And there will be no more bitter sea. When these things begin to take place, lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.

Luke 21: 9-28 "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."
Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
"When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.
" Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.
" Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.1989


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