Are We Prepared For the End?
Two of our readings this morning stare us straight in the face with the message that the world is going to end, and we had best be ready. This kind of literature is called apocalyptic literature, and there is some of it in the Bible, and a lot of it in popular culture. Phyllis Tickle tells us that about every 500 years there is a major religious upheaval in Western religion. In American religion, there has been a resurgence of revivalism and apocalyptic thought about every 40 years, starting right back there with the colonialists. You may remember that religion was a big reason why people came to America from Europe. One of my ancestors was a preacher who brought his congregation over here. It took the colonies about 40 years to get past worrying about starvation, and in the 1720s, the First Great Awakening started. Religious historians have documented that about every 40 years since then there has been some sort of revival or upheaval in this country.
The texts we read this morning and others like it have been fuel for this. Many of us in the Episcopal Church are pretty uncomfortable with all of the emotionalism that goes along with this, but I think there are some things we can learn from it. The Collect for the Day is one of my favorites; look at what it says: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us… All holy Scriptures, not some of them!
So how can we look at these particular words written for our learning? What can we learn from them? When I read the passage from the Book of Daniel, the wisdom I hear from this is that what we do matters. It is a great temptation in this world to think that what we do does not matter. Unlike people who live in a village where it is very hard to hide things, we live in a city where one can feel anonymous, where one can think that what one does can be hidden, or simply don’t matter. What I read in Daniel reminds me that we matter, and that what we do, and what we don’t do, matters. It does not just matter, it has eternal consequences. Now this is typical Middle Eastern hyperbole, but the point is well taken.
I am reminded of the education classes that we taught in Atlanta about HIV/AIDS, and there were two unfortunately true statistics that we used to get people’s attention. The first statistic was that every prostitute in Atlanta was HIV+, every last one. The second statistic was that a large majority of men who considered themselves monogamous had one fling a year with someone other than their wife, usually at a conference. It was a classic case of someone thinking that he could be anonymous, no one would be hurt, it did not say anything about his having a bad marriage, etc., etc. The result was that women in rural Georgia were showing up HIV+, and most of their doctors didn’t even think about testing them for it until it became epidemic. What we do matters, and there are consequences that may not show up for a long time.
The Gospel reading is from Mark. Remember that Mark is the first Gospel that was written, and that it is mostly a collection of sayings and short stories. In today’s selection, someone is impressed by the large stones and beautiful buildings that make up the Temple. I have seen the bottom of one of the walls that they were referring to, and indeed, they are very large stones, very impressive. Jesus sees beyond the physical, and his response is astonishing to them. “Do you see these stones? Not one will be left on another.” Later, when the Temple had indeed been destroyed, they would remember what Jesus said. At the time, the disciples wait until the outsiders go away, and then they ask Jesus to explain more. Tell us! What’s going to happen? What should we expect?
Jesus, as usual, does not give a straight-forward answer, but he does not say it’s going to be a bed of roses either. It will not be pretty, he says. Like the disciples, we too want to know what is going to happen. When I lived in the Midwest, people could not imagine living in Calif, waiting for the Big One. I would explain that there were earthquakes all the time, that you just didn’t worry about it. But, they said, you know that the Big One is coming, right? Oh yes! How can you stand it? From my point of view, knowing that there were going to be devastating tornadoes every year was worse, but they were used to them, and I had grown up with earthquakes.
Then there is the question of how we understand chaotic events. Rev. Adam Copeland, in the Huffington Post writes: “ Discipleship calls for a faith in which ultimately, despite our present struggle, God’s love is sovereign. We need not micromanage the signs of God’s judgment. Instead, we are called to manage our lives and conform them to God’s vision of justice, love and peace.”
“No matter the tragedy these days, some religious leader or blogger will attempt to connect it to God’s judgment. Some say superstorm Sandy was God’s wrath on liberal New York and New Jersey… This instinct to interpret current times through the broader lens of God’s judgment is not new… For those who believe God’s Spirit does work in the world through signs and miracles, such tragedies can function as intellectual puzzles, but they should never stop us from responding with heart, head and hands.”
“Mark 13:1-8, and similar passages in Daniel and Revelation, long for a future in which oppression is a thing of the past, but they should not be read as an end time recipe book with detailed step-by-step instructions. The coming times are sometimes described in vague, rough, violent terms, but the ultimate end is full of God’s justice and peace. Believers today take many different approaches to waiting (and interpreting) the end times. Some read into the Bible explanations that simply are not there, mislabeling storms like Sandy and causing more hurt in the process.”
“The faithful response to disaster is not pointing a finger, or making shocking headline-grabbing accusations, but service to God and neighbor…we know too that one day there will be another storm, another shooting, another earthquake. We must break the cycle of interpreting these events in ways Jesus specifically warned against, and instead, follow the one who healed at every opportunity, who urged care for those without food and shelter, who loved beyond all love even in the most desperate of times. Jesus gave a vague answer as to when God will renew the world in God’s justice, but his instructions for caring for our neighbors were abundantly clear. When disasters hit, Jesus’ followers should get to work and leave the end time prognostication to God alone.”
There is another way to think about “end times,” and that has to do with us personally. Lutheran Pastor Mary Anderson offers us the “ultimate stewardship” question: if you only had one month left to live, what would you do? How you answer that question tells you a lot, first about what is important to you, and then about how close or far those actions are from how you live your everyday life. She suggests that “in our last days we would be better stewards of all the things God has given us in this life — better than we are now. In the intensity of last days, we would live better, be better. We would be more generous, more focused on the most important things in life. The question is: Why do we need to be under threat of death to be better stewards?” At the same time, she says, there is an impracticality of living that way that needs to be tempered, and that Jesus calls us to do both. We need to live with intensity in the middle of our ordinary lives.
Then she asked a question that really got my attention: What would we do as a congregation if we knew we only had a month left? Here’s what she said: “If we only had a month to live, I would want all the members to be together as much as possible. If only for one precious Sunday, I’d like to have everybody listed in our church directory together for worship. If our time as a congregation was almost over, I don’t think we’d have much trouble getting inactive or barely active members and friends to join us. End times have that kind of power. As members of a congregation at the end of its life, we would also have the great opportunity to decide what we wanted to do with our assets. Provided God or the bishop left that up to us, we would have a few million dollars worth of real estate, cash and furnishings to disperse back into the local community and the Christian community.”[pullquoteright]The Bible’s teaching about the end times reminds us that we have failed to see history from God’s perspective. There is a bigger picture than just the snapshot of our lives. We don’t live in the moment, we live in all of history.”[/pullquoteright]
She goes on: “How would we decide what to do with the money? We wouldn’t have time to fight about it. We’d have to focus fast and get our priorities straight. What would we support and what would we want our final legacy to be? We could help start a new ministry where none currently exists. Or we could support an existing one, endow scholarships, build a youth center in town or a better shelter for the homeless. We could do so much — if we had only a month left! We could be really great stewards of our resources — if we only had a month to live. The question is, why is it so hard for our congregations to consider this kind of stewardship if we have another hundred years to live? The Bible’s teaching about the end times reminds us that we have failed to see history from God’s perspective. There is a bigger picture than just the snapshot of our lives. We don’t live in the moment, we live in all of history.”
Here we are, back at the “both-and” issue. I think it is very helpful to think through what is really, really important to us, and asking the “end-time” questions is a good way to get at that, and to bring up the intensity. At the same time, we do not have to be afraid. This is what gets missed sometimes when people talk about the end times. They live in fear, and they want others to live in fear too. As children of God, we are not given a spirit of fear, we are given the spirit of love. That love allows us to step back, and to remember that much bigger picture that we are a part of. Within that larger picture, yes, what we does matters, what we do with ourselves and our church is important. We do well to live with intensity, to think about this month. But we do not need to be fearful about this. Rather, we need to cultivate joy, and love.
Our Readings Today
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Mark 13:1-8″ title=”Mark 13:1-8″ url=”https://www.bible.com/bible/392/mrk.13.1-8.cev” type=”iframe”]
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Reading Two Citation” title=”Reading Two Citation” url=”https://www.bible.com” type=”iframe”]