The End... or the Beginning?
(An Advent sermon, updated for this latest apocalypse.)
We love the end of the world. We love telling stories about how it all ends. Just go to the movies during the summer blockbuster season, and you can watch the world end any number of ways: floods from rising sea levels, asteroids from outer space, nuclear annihilation, pandemics, zombie infestations, and alien invasions. We have a sense that things cannot keep on going this way. Something has to give. Will it be with a bang or a whimper?
That's what's sending droves of people to buy survival gear today, the supposed "end of the world," based on the Mayan calendar. And for those who are more skeptical, there are dozens of Facebook memes to make light of this ancient prediction and current day events that might also herald the end of the world as we know it. ("Michael Stipe feels fine," for instance. And the fact that Dick Clark won't be here to ring in a new year must mean we've reached the end.)
We know that we are mortal and will not last forever, and we know that this world we love will end as well. For people of Jesus’ time it was the day when God, weary of humanity’s sin and stupidity, would invade the world and impose God’s own rule on the planet. They called it the “Day of the Lord,” the coming of the Son of Man. The dead would rise and be reconstituted and stand before God to be judged according to their deeds. While this may sound like a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, the fact is that all humanity—religious or not—is conscious of sin and actually longs for judgment. Why else would we keep watching the world destroyed or nearly destroyed again and again? With a mix of fear and eager anticipation, we long for judgment.
Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (64:1). We want the bad guys to get their comeuppance and the righteous to be vindicated. This is why we love the end of the world and tell stories about how it happens.
You can see the signs, Jesus says. Hopeful signs, in fact. He compares it to the budding leaves of a fig tree. One day you look closely and the first tiny, yellow-green leaves unwrap themselves and spread toward the sky. Then you know the seasons are changing. Soon there will be juicy figs ripening in the sun. When he uses this metaphor, Jesus’ followers likely remember all the times that prophets described Israel as a fig tree that kept failing to produce fruit, and the threat that God would soon cut it down. For Jesus to use this symbol of fruitfulness and growing life, then, is a bit unusual. Since he’s describing the end of the world, we might expect him to use a metaphor of winter or to talk about the ax at the root of the tree. Instead Jesus views the coming of the Son of Man as a good thing.
The kingdom of God grows imperceptibly, and we stand on the edge of a new age. One season is ending, and another beginning. The coming of the Son of Man isn’t so much the end of our world as the promise of another one beginning. You can see the hopeful signs of it blossoming all around you.
“But you don’t know when it’s coming,” Jesus says. Despite the scenarios about the end of the world that one group or another have predicted, the world seems to plow stubbornly along. Sure, there’s no question that we can’t keep living this way: building bigger bombs, fouling the oceans and air, baking our planet, and dumping pharmaceuticals into our drinking water. We live in an age where the end of the world seems tangible. Yet we don’t know when the turning point will take place. Although we are certain there must be a reckoning soon, it isn’t a date we can put on our calendars. It isn’t like we will see the end coming and say, “Well, I’ll only be able to mark four things off my to-do list on that day.”
In fact, when the Day of Judgment comes, we will still have things on our to-do lists. There will be clothes in the washing machine and a full in-box on your desk. Whether that Day of Judgment is the end of your own life, or the end of the world, or the glorious return of Christ, you still have a life to live. Jesus admonishes us to “keep awake” (Mark 13:37). Don’t let the day of the Lord sneak up on you. Live as though the kingdom is coming now. Leave the speculation about when or how or who will be saved and who will be “left behind” to others.
It is as if your boss left the employees in charge of the family business, says Jesus, and it does not matter if the boss returns “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (13:35). It does not matter if it is seven days or seven millennia from now. When the boss returns, there will be only one question: Have you been faithful to the work you’ve been given? You’ll still have stuff on your to-do list. Is it the right stuff?
Preparing for Christmas means getting ready for the coming of our king. The world is changing, and there is something new and exciting growing just beyond the edge of our perception, just under the surface of things. We anticipate the end of our corrupted world and the beginning of a new, exciting, peaceful, and just one. God’s rule is growing around us, little by little. You can see it grow in unlikely friendships between rich and poor, when people of different backgrounds and from different neighborhoods sing together in the same pew. You can see it wherever the hungry receive food and the sick find healing. In the midst of winter, there are already buds on the trees where new life is preparing to spring out.