The end of the world?
This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 15, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. This Sunday was the first Sunday following the series of coordinated ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris which killed well over a hundred people. There was a baptism at the 9:15 service. Music included one of my favorite hymns, “All my hope on God is founded,” which was also sung at my ordination to the priesthood.
Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such use hear them, read, Mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
There will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is still to come. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes: the end of the world. Do you remember the supposed Mayan apocalypse from a few years ago? Or the apocalyptic preacher in Times Square a year after that? People were so taken in by these predictions of the world’s end that they quit their jobs, got married, got divorced, moved overseas, or racked up enormous credit card debt with crazy purchases. Who cares how much debt you’re in when the world is ending? Who cares how many people you hurt if you’re not going to be there to pick up the pieces when it’s over? There are plenty of cults — and whole religions too — which play off our fascination with the end of the world. And yet the one common denominator of our life here on earth is that the world seems to go on, time keeps on ticking, no matter the predictions of when it will end.
On a darker note, there are also plenty of times when you and I might start to feel as if the world were ending, or at least when we realize that it cannot carry on this way much longer: events like this Friday’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, or the breakdown of common life in our own country, or the establishment of vicious foreign societies like ISIS bent on the world’s destruction. If the world isn’t ending, it can sure feel like it at times; or at the very least like maybe it should.
The truth is, that despite both the silly and the sad ways the end of the world presents itself in our culture, there is something in us — an instinct maybe — which is fascinated by the idea of The End. Of course you and I will never pay attention to a street preacher, we will never be hoodwinked by the books which predict an end in our time, we are much too sophisticated for that. But, somewhere far back in our minds, there is an instinct that suggests there might be something to it after all. Like children reading a story book, we are convinced there must be an end to the story: something that will make everything that’s happening make sense, something that will prove that good guys actually do finish first, and that evil doesn’t go unpunished. When we hear the radio commentator predict the end of the world — yet again! — we laugh. But something in us hopes it might be so, if only so that everything might finally be set to rights.
Our Gospel reading this morning is one that is constantly used in predictions about the end of the world. There are people out there who make vast fortunes tracking famines and wars and earthquakes, selling books updating their fans on their latest assessment of creation’s progress towards the end times. Of course none of these authors quite realize that nowhere in this passage is the end of the world even in question. Jesus says nothing about the world’s end. He makes a very specific statement that the buildings of the temple will be thrown down, and in response to his disciples’ question, he offers some reflections on his own coming again. This isn’t the end of the world.
But for the disciples, like so many families in Paris today, it is the end of their world. The temple, thrown down? Jerusalem, in ruins? Wars and famines and earthquakes? It’s not the end of the world, but it is certainly the end of everything the disciples had understood to be permanent, and Jesus insists it is only the beginning. It’s not a happy picture. And so they ask him, ‘When will these things be? When we will we know the end of the story?’
Jesus answers them not with a date or a time, not with any suggestion of what to look for when he returns, but instead by saying, “Do not be alarmed,” Do not be afraid, “These things are but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Do not be afraid. These things are but the beginning of the birth pangs. With his answer, Jesus deflects attention away from the kind of ends we’re used to imagining: do not be afraid, these are the beginning of the birth pangs. It’s the end of the temple, the end of life as they knew it, but there’s really no threatening language here: no sense of any final annihilation, no suggestion of a final moment in which all of them must decide. The earth doesn’t open and swallow the wicked, fire doesn’t rain down from heaven, judgement is nowhere to be found. Rather the command, “Do not be afraid,” and birth pangs.
Jesus reveals that the operative question here is not “When will we reach the end of the story?” but “What is God doing in the world, and when will it finally be ready to begin?” Think of the other times we hear “Do not be afraid” in Scripture: when Moses trembles before the burning bush, and receives the news that God will bring his people out of Egypt. When the archangel Gabriel visits Mary, and tells her that she will bear the Son of God. When Jesus at the last supper tells his disciples that he will be taken from them on the next day, as he goes to the cross to work their salvation.
Do not be afraid. This command always heralds something new and wonderful that God is about to do in the world. Do not be afraid. These are only the beginning of the birth pangs.
If we are stuck thinking about the end, we are asking the wrong question. God is actually not all that interested in endings to begin with. In fact his chief purpose is to put an end to all endings. We read in the Scriptures, the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself, and in Christ’s resurrection from the dead he breaks the grave’s stranglehold on life and opens the way for us to eternity. When he comes again it will be the final end to death, the final end to all endings, and the beginning of eternity with God.
If our world is still rocked by wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and violence, it is because death still struggles to have the last word. But we who are baptized are born anew, born by water and the Holy Spirit, into Our Lord’s deathless life. We do not have the luxury of sitting idle and waiting for the world to end, waiting for Christ to come back and fix it once and for all. We, the members of his body, are the vanguard of his kingdom. And it is our task not to wait for the end, but to be busy about the beginning: the beginning of the kingdom of God.
We have work to do. We cannot buy into the culture of fear that assumes everything is a zero-sum game of win or lose, eat or be eaten, have or have not. It is tempting, because that culture can build great monuments, great temples to human industry that people admire and aspire to imitate. But there is a hidden cost to monuments to human achievement, there is a hidden cost to the pursuit of power and dominance, and that cost is always human blood. Instead our work, as members of Christ’s Body, is to cultivate love in the midst of ruin and failure and despair. Our work is to cultivate humility in a landscape planted thick with competing prides. Our work is to go, with our Lord, willingly to our deaths, even in the face of injustice and false accusation, so that innocence might shine all the brighter.
Make no mistake, this work will make us all look like fools, and no one will build great monuments for its achievement. But ruin and despair and failure and even death are the places where Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”
Even though the stones of the temple fall, even though every monument be pulled down and all is devoted to destruction, He is there. And where He is, there the Resurrection holds sway, the forgiveness of sins, the raising up of what had fallen. Where Jesus is, there creation meets its appointed end: eternal life in the glory of God forever.
In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.